Strange Chemistry, p/b, Â£7.99
Reviewed by Pauline Morgan
A very large number of youngsters, especially girls, dream of working with animals. Most of them never do. Many adults, especially from the older generations had the idea that SF for youngsters was mainly aimed at boys. To a certain extent it was. Times have changed but the combination of animals and SF is a rare combination. There may be the odd pet, or the enhanced lab animal, or aliens but not a focus on off-world, non-sentient creatures other than those that want to eat the explorers. That is what makes this book a joy.
The setting is a far future Mars. To make it liveable, the deeper valleys have been equipped with generators that produce a sort of force-field that keeps a breathable atmosphere in. The precarious life of the colonists has worsened by a rift with Earth. The government there blames aliens for the virus that very severely reduced the population. Mars deals with aliens. Much of the technology that keeps the Mars situation going comes from earth and it is beginning to break down with little hope for replacements.
The main character is Zenn, a seventeen year-old girl whose only ambition is to be an exovet â€“ not entirely surprising as that is her familyâ€™s trade. The clinic is in a Ciscan Cloister, originally set up by a religious order but now only lip-service is paid to regime. It used to be a thriving exovet school but Zenn is now the only student, her uncle the only tutor (her father is off-world and her mother missing presumed dead). The patients are exotic, alien pets or zoo specimens. Many of them are large. Local people perceive them as dangerous. Some are.
Naturally, there are factors that complicate the situation. The lease for the land that the Cloister is on and the clinic uses, is up for renewal and there is a growing opposition by the town council to its continued presence, possibly linked to the rift with Earth. Zenn is concerned that her father hasnâ€™t been heard from for a while and is worried that something has happened to him. Her end of year tests are immanent and if she fails them, her future as an exovet will be non-existent. The problem here is things have started to go wrong. When she is working with the animals she sometimes gets a fleeting communication with them that breaks her concentration. She tries to explain this to her uncle but as it is outside his experience, he puts it down to imagination and stress. The thing that worries her most is the accumulation of small incidents that could be put down to her negligence. Taken with all the other things, she is convinced that someone is trying to sabotage the clinic. On top of this, the towner boy, Liam, who helps out around the place is beginning to have an effect on her hormones. An added problem, likely to feature more heavily in future volumes is the disappearance of starships that are guided by creatures called Indra.
This appears to be the first of a series and has all the right ingredients to capture the imagination of a mid-teen reader and many will be able to relate to Zennâ€™s problems. They are unlikely to notice the issues about the plot that an adult reader might spot, the main one being why would an alien species bring a pet, however exotic, all the way to Mars for veterinary treatment? The same adult may also be able to spot the likely plot progression and identify the root of some of the menaces before Zenn does. This aside, the characters are engaging, the dangers real and setting believable. I look forward to seeing how the series progresses.