In a nutshell, Zoe’s Tale follows the same story as The Last Colony. But this time around the story is told from Zoe’s point-of-view. Scalzi is able to accomplish three things by doing this. One, it fills in some of the unanswered questions from the last book. Two, it gives Zoe more character development since she was a little sparse on that before. Three, Scalzi once again shows he is capable of writing very different points-of-view. Across this series, we have gone from standard soldier to spec ops soldier to ex-soldier civilian to teenage girl. And each time he switches up perspectives, it works.
Being written from a teenage girl’s POV, Zoe’s Tale reads very much like a YA novel. She is deeply embroiled in events that will determine the ultimate fate of humanity and countless alien races. At the same time, she is a teenage girl. She has normal teenage girl problems on top of the “save humanity” stuff. Not to mention her tragic background stretching back to the second book. All the while, the adults do not fully grasp what she is going through as they deal with the threats everyone is facing in their own way.
One of the key things about Scalzi’s writing is the lack of descriptions. Sci-fi concepts like unique aliens are barely described, if at all. The ideas are good but the writing is simple to follow. Characters are a bit of a mix between 2D and 3D. There is a big, bad but also “good” government in place to keep order despite committing atrocities. All of these factors are pretty common in YA books. Since Zoe’s Tale is more of a YA book than the rest of Old Man’s War, all of that writing is more in line this time around.
That being said, there is no reason to read Zoe’s Tale if you have not read the previous book. Certain key details from The Last Colony are not mentioned here. This is meant to be an expansion of the previous novel, not a story in and of itself. And while all the extra details are nice to have, it does not really advance the story any. Old Man’s War was originally written as a trilogy and everything past book three really feels tacked on. Not necessarily bad reads, but not on par with the original three novels.