Saturday, October 18, 2008

Book Review: The Last Colony

John Scalzi is a fun writer to read. His narratives are always easy to breeze through, without much of the overwriting and weighty exposition that drags down many other sci-fi action stories. The Last Colony, being the third and final of the main books in his Old Man's War series, is no exception. It's light, extremely well-written and crafted, and most importantly: darn good fun to read. This was a page-turner for me in the truest sense of the phrase. In fact, I found myself consciously slowing myself down so as to savor the flavor of Scalzi's distinctive wit and prolong the reading experience.

In TLC, Scalzi returns to the first-person POV as well as his protagonist from the first novel -- John Perry. After disappearing from the stage at the end of the first novel, Perry returns in the closing act of the trilogy now married to Jane Sagan and raising their adoptive daughter, Zoe Boutin -- two characters who figured prominently in the middle novel, The Ghost Brigades. But before the newly settled family can adapt to the idyllic life on one of the Colonial Union's several colony worlds, John and Jane are approached to lead an ambitious colonizing project on a newly discovered planet.

Retired from active military service, but itching for the sense of adventure and exploration they've been missing, the couple jumps at the opportunity. Accompanied by Zoe and the child's ferocious Obin bodyguards, the family sets out for the colony world of Roanoke . . . only to discover that they are unwitting pawns in a secret Colonial Union plot to establish humanity's dominance over all other races in the galaxy.

Although the description sounds heavy, the novel for the most part is lightweight and fun, filled with the characteristically wry humor that colors many of Scalzi's key characters in his OMW novels. There are moments of intense drama, action, and gore, but strangely these occurrences are few and muted in comparison to the earlier novels in the series. Some of this is due to the nature of the plot itself -- after all, neither John nor Jane are kickass "space marines" anymore. Unlike the previous novels, the settings in TLC do not weave through myriad interstellar battlefields and gory alien firefights against enemies as bizarre as they are varied. This novel is the more political of the three, dealing mostly with diplomacy and negotiation as John and Jane lead their colony out from one life-threatening dilemma to another.

In fact, this was my one gripe when I came to the end of the novel in particular. Events build up and come to such a head by the third act, expanding to a scope and breadth truly deserving of the series, only to be snatched back at the last minute before any serious bloodshed and conflict can take place. So instead of a colossal space or land battle as the earlier portions of the novel seemed to be hinting at, we get a resolution that is too neatly tied up in a diplomatic bow that, while staying true to the theme of "words speaking louder than actions," does not necessarily make for a satisfying capper to what has been an action/military SF series up to this point.

But perhaps this was the message Scalzi wanted to bring across? After all, this book is more about being "human" in the truest sense of the word, and eschews the idea that mankind is only at its best and most innovative when it is engaged in conflict against opposing factions. The epilogue chapter certainly seems to hammer this message home in a manner I have to admit I did find satisfying.

So, yes, it's a bit on the anti-climactic side, but I won't fault the author as having betrayed the characters and their personalities with this pacifistic theme of "anti-war." It does in fact fit with the narrative when you examine it closely, and in that sense Scalzi did a brilliant job.

Those wishing to continue reading in the Old Man's War universe can rejoice at the news that Scalzi has recently released Zoe's Tale -- a side-story starring the couple's daughter during roughly the same time frame as TLC -- to rave reviews. A note at the end of the novel also mentions that, while he doubts he'll return to the Perry family in future works, Scalzi hasn't ruled out the possibility of writing more novels in the OMW milieu should the need and opportunity arise.

I, for one, would love to book a return trip there someday, if only to enjoy Scalzi's amazing gift for telling thoroughly enjoyable and well-crafted sci-fi tales that both grip and excite the reader.

Grade: B+

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