In my micro review for The Last Colony, the third and previous book in this series, I noted that the third book was the last in the series, considered in a traditional fashion. That’s because Zoe’s Tale is an alternate POV re-telling of The Last Colony, and the books that follow are also a little different in their structure, but I’ll get to that in those reviews.
Alternate POV novelizations aren’t unheard of, but they’re tricky to pull off and are often viewed by more cynical readers as being a cash grab. I enjoyed Zoe’s Tale on its own merits, but I liked it even more given the context from Scalzi’s author’s note at the end where he addresses some of the major concerns about doing a novel like this. In particular, he mentions why he decided to do it: it was an experiment prompted by reader feedback, both in the laudatory “We want more Zoe” way and also “Yo, there were some plot holes in The Last Colony” way. So he figured he could kill two birds with one stone, but he notes how difficult it is as a writer to actually pull off, to be internally consistent on the timeline and not retcon prior characterization and plot points. Finally — and I appreciated this, as well — he notes that when he despaired being able to nail the voice of a teenage girl, he turned to women writers and confidantes. This seems extremely obvious, but having read as many books as I have where male authors do a pretty awkward job of writing women, it’s refreshing that Scalzi is thinking about this. It’s especially important in this book, since he does have a pretty identifiable voice when he’s writing, and a lot of his characters do end up having very similar voices (if not priorities and motivations.) For the alternate POV to work here, it really did need to be a truly distinct voice from the other “Old Men” in the series, or it would have been a complete re-tread.
But DID Zoe’s Tale work? I mentioned above that I enjoyed it, and gave it four stars, so for me, yes. It’s hard to say how I feel about some seemingly requisite elements of the alternate POV, like including conversations that are present in The Last Colony. It seems like every alternate POV has a couple of scenes like this, which are a fun wink to the reader, but they’re also — for obvious reasons — the least important scenes. If the first book was written effectively to begin with, and I’d argue The Last Colony was, you already have a pretty good idea of how both characters feel in the interaction. Presenting the other POV solidifies that, but it isn’t necessarily new information. Therefore, the most effective parts of the book are the ones that, as Scalzi himself implied, fill in the more obvious gaps of The Last Colony and flesh out more about Zoe herself as a character.
This isn’t the most essential book in the series, but I found it worth reading as a course of completing them all.