Part of the blurb (which, in my opinion, is a bit too long and too detailed but could be worse):
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.
Zenn lives in a sort of veterinary abbey with her uncle, a nun and a small number of other workers. I wasn't entirely clear why there was a religious order dedicated to caring for alien life forms, but I hope we'll learn more about that in the sequel. Most of the other characters, namely the townspeople, where the abbey was set apart from the town, were very irritating. In a good way, from a writing point of view, but in a very "need a good slap in the face for being a bunch of red neck xenophobic hicks" way. A lot of the tension in the novel arose from the townies being afraid of aliens and barely tolerating the abbey's continuing presence, even when the vets were actively helping them with their own pets and livestock.
In some ways, I felt the story didn't tackle the issues of xenophobia and tolerance deeply enough. For a start, it wasn't until a good way into the story that we learnt why there were so many hicks on Mars — it was used as a transportation colony — a point which rather baffled me up until then. To some extent, it boiled down a bit too much to "good guys nice to animals" vs "bad guys hate the good guys" although it did get more complex towards the end.
A lot of things about Zenn Scarlett improved towards the end. I felt the writing grew more readable as we went along, particularly since there were so many flashbacks near the start. I was also gratified that there wasn't a very long gap between my guessing a plot point and it being revealed in the text. The last quarter or so was full of excitement, albeit the very end, after the main climax, culminated in a very frustrating cliff hanger, however. Frustrating because I could see it coming when there weren't nearly enough pages to resolve new events. I want to read the sequel cliff hanger or not, but there's something slightly soul-crushing about the looming inevitability of not having a proper resolution at the end. (I think I prefer the kind of cliff hangers that sneak up on you... or softer ones with less in the balance.)
I feel like I need to comment on the science in Zenn Scarlett, since that's my thing. I can't say much about the biology because that's not my area, but as the blurb suggests, almost all the animals involved were quite giant. If they were on Earth I'd be questioning the biophysical plausibility, but with Mars's lower gravity, there's more chance of them being OK. There was one slightly creative physics moment that had be heckling the page, but in the scheme of things, it could have been much worse (it could also have been better justified...).
All in all, Zenn Scarlett was a fun read. I recommend it to fans of YA science fiction. I want to say it's good for fans of something a little different, but I have to admit there were aspects which reminded me a little of Avatar (the James Cameron movie), more thematically than literally. I'm not sure I've read any YA on a similar theme, however. Anyway, fans of aliens and alien creatures in their SF will also enjoy this book, I think. I look forward to reading the sequel.
4 / 5 stars
First published: (early) May 2013, Strange Chemistry (Angry Robot)
Series: Yes. Book 1 of 2?
Format read: eARC on my iThings
Source: the publisher via NetGalley