Zenn Scarlett is a bright, determined, occasionally a-little-too-smart-for-her-own-good 17-year-old girl training hard to become an exoveterinarian. That means she’s specializing in the treatment of exotic alien life forms, mostly large and generally dangerous. Her novice year of training at the Ciscan Cloister Exovet Clinic on Mars will find her working with alien patients from whalehounds the size of a hay barn to a baby Kiran Sunkiller, a colossal floating creature that will grow up to carry a whole sky-city on its back.
But after a series of inexplicable animal escapes from the school and other near-disasters, the Cloister is in real danger of being shut down by a group of alien-hating officials. If that happens, Zenn knows only too well the grim fate awaiting the creatures she loves.
Now, she must unravel the baffling events plaguing her school, before someone is hurt or killed, before everything she cares about is ripped away from her and her family forever. To solve this mystery – and live to tell about it – Zenn will have to put her new exovet skills to work in ways she never imagined, and in the process learn just how powerful compassion and empathy can be.
In the Nineties, the BBC aired a show called Vet’s School and later Vets in Practice, which followed a group of veterinary students through veterinary school and in the early years of their practice. I adored this show and followed it faithfully; I crushed on some of the male vets as only a teenage girl could and I cheered them as they passed exams and internships and felt for them when they failed. I was invested, as they say. I’ve also read and adored all of James Herriott’s books, so to say that Zenn Scarlett came perfectly tailored to me, is an understatement. I expected to adore the book and while I really liked it, I didn’t love it as deeply as I could have; mostly due to some plot and writing issues.
The world-building in Zenn Scarlett was quite convincing. The description of the colony on Mars is very cool and I loved the small-town feel of it. The sparse glimpses we are given of humanity’s history are quite interesting and I’d love to learn more. What order where the planets colonized; how did we first encounter other – alien – species; how was the order of the Ciscans formed? Plenty of questions to be answered in future books! But most impressive and probably most attention grabbing were the creatures. I loved this aspect of the novel and I know that teenage me would have loved it even more. And for someone who screams at the appearance of a silverfish or a spider, the fact that Schoon actually made me like Hamish, who is a giant bug and Zenn’s fellow student, says a lot. I loved the details in the animals, the way that their anatomy and their care seemed plausible especially taking their home planets into account. And, of course, I really want a rikkaset to call my own. One thing I did wonder about Zenn’s beloved pet, however; if Katie hadn’t been deaf, would she actually have been able to learn verbal communication or – like the chimps Zenn references at some point – would she still have to have learned how to sign?
The cast of characters is interesting and broad-ranging. Our protagonists are Zenn, Hamish, and Liam, but Schoon includes a nice set of secondaries in Sister Hild, Otha, the Sheriff, Vic LeClerc, and Graad Dokes. There are also lots of bit players who add colour and detail to the world. The dynamics between Zenn and Otha were well drawn. I could feel and understand Zenn’s frustration with her uncle’s protectiveness, but I can also understand Otha’s reluctance to let his niece take on adult responsibilities and have her lose whatever childhood she has left. The motivations for the villains in the piece are well-developed and at least one of them was quite unexpected. As for the others, there were plenty of clues about their identity and Zenn quickly latches on to part of the explanation of why the sabotage is happening.
Now for the less charming bits; there were some clunky introductions and bridges in the narrative, such as when Zenn and Hamish are taking care of the yotes, buffalo-like creatures from the planet Procyon, and at that exact point two boys from that planet show up. It’s just too much of a cute coincidence and it stood out. Similarly, there was a lot of signposting: the closing of the whalehound enclosure, the emphasis on the danger of the bloodcarn – Also, EEEEWWW, a killer spider-centipede. That’s fodder for a guaranteed nightmare! – the rhina grubs debacle. I saw those coming from a mile away and it would have been nice if the clues had been a little less obvious.
Zenn Scarlett ends on a HUGE cliff hanger. While the identity of the saboteurs is discovered, there are several elements that remain unexplained, such as Zenn’s sudden ability to read the animals and her father’s fate. Despite my issues with some of the writing and the plot I thoroughly enjoyed my Martian jaunt with Zenn and I’m curious to find out the answers to the questions that close out the book and to see more of this universe Schoon created. Any animal-mad teen, be they boy or girl, will be able to identify with Zenn’s desire to become an exovet, and Zenn Scarlett is a wonderful book to introduce younger teens to SF, without having them feel they need to be mathletes to understand what’s going on in the story. I would have adored the book when I was fourteen, fifteen, and even as an adult I had a great amount of fun with Zenn Scarlett.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.