BOOK REVIEW: The Legend of Ellie Quin by Alex Scarrow
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Nineteen year-old Ellie Quin spends her days planting tubweeds on an oxygen farm anxious for the day that she can escape rural life and move to the domed city of New Haven. The normal longings of an adolescent girl prove to be anything but normal in this gene-enhanced future. The day arrives and Ellie puts her plans into motion, unaware that she and her small agricultural planet are on a collision course with forces that could unravel the entire course of humanity, with Ellie being the key to their undoing.
PROS: Engaging protagonist; imaginative world-building; strong pacing with a steadily building tension.
CONS: It is not a self-contained story; ends abruptly to continue in second volume.
BOTTOM LINE: The Legend of Ellie Quin delivers a sense-of-wonder exploration of the future reminiscent of Heinlein’s juvenile novels coupled with the accessibility of contemporary storytelling techniques. It reveals an imaginative future in which humanity thrives in a sprawling universe seen through the eyes of a down-to-earth, likeable character.
It is the beginning of the 31st century and humanity has spread throughout the stars, terraforming planets through the efforts of rugged pioneers and forming trade agreements with the various alien species in the galaxy. War is not a thing of the past but is a distant concern and very little excitement makes its way to the marginal agricultural planet of Harpers Reach. Nineteen year old Ellie Quin, the oldest of three children, spends her days dreaming of escape whilst planting and cultivating plant/animal hybrids called “tubweeds” that have the curious property of processing carbon dioxide into oxygen at an extremely proficient rate. Most of Harpers Reach remains uninhabitable without the use of portable respirators and the Quins are one of many rural families working to terraform the planet to the point at which it will sustain the right mix of breathable oxygen.
As her twentieth birthday approaches, Ellie is contemplating putting into motion her long-held plan to gather up her saved credits and run away to the only major city on Harpers Reach, the domed city of New Haven. While her dreams ultimately lay beyond the planet, the entirety of her hopes are settled on this one location. The day for her departure arrives and Ellie finds herself alone and determined to follow through now before she finds herself trapped in a dead-end existence. The hands of Fate seem to be against her though as Ellie’s true adventure begins with the near ending of her life.
Alex Scarrow is a British author with a number of books to his credit. The Ellie Quin series is his latest, with three volumes currently available through Amazon. In a recent interview with SF Signal, Scarrow describes this series as being:
“(a) madcap, colourful, vibrant universe full of really fun ideas. For instance….pets you can grow from seeds, nail varnish that when it dries you can watch TV on your finger, genetically engineered labourers with four arms, weird fortune telling aliens, soda pops that change flavour all the time, plants with a cabby attitude!….lotsa fun stuff in a big, big, universe”.
No doubt these imaginative elements make their way into the series but we see little of that in this opening novella. This is not offered as a criticism, merely to point out that very little of this story would be described as “madcap”. However, the story is all the stronger for it. Alex Scarrow does a masterful job of revealing his created universe through the eyes of his principle character and he spends the majority of this first section accomplishing that while propelling Ellie forward. This approach allows the focus to stay on Ellie and allows the reader to connect with the character on a deeper level. The presence of the fantastical aspects mentioned above would have been a distraction here.
In addition to the story as seen through the eyes of Ellie Quin, the reader is treated to a mysterious storyline involving genetic engineering and a secret long-hidden whose revelation would be a threat to Ellie’s very existence. Aspects of this secondary storyline are revealed sparingly, teasing the reader and building an entertaining level of tension. By the time this volume ends, we begin to see these threads woven together in a way that promises more page-turning thrills in the subsequent books.
Finally, Scarrow injects a real sense of the passage of time and some much needed humor in the form of the OMNIPEDIA, a Wikipedia-like open source encyclopedia containing entries discussing the legends surrounding Ellie Quin, are both handled well. There is an authenticity here that elicits laughs as Scarrow dares to imagine a universe one century removed from ours in which internet trolls continue to spill their unsolicited “wisdom” on the masses. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
“Authenticity” is worth mentioning in closing in regards to the central protagonist. Ellie Quin is very much the naive, self-centered young adult that we can all remember being at one time in our lives. Her lack of foresight and poor decision making would be frustrating if it did not succeed in making her a character that you long to root for right from the start. The Legend of Ellie Quin is a story that has a broad appeal. It can be read and enjoyed by mature younger readers and teens as well as adults looking for science fiction that has a focus on character and a taste of nostalgic sense of wonder. Read it to recall that spark that ignited your initial passion for science fiction.
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