BOOK REVIEW: The Legend of Ellie Quin by Alex Scarrow

REVIEW SUMMARY: An appealing, character-driven adventure in a future history that is both fun and inventive.

MY RATING:

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.

MY REVIEW
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.

19 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW: The Legend of Ellie Quin by Alex Scarrow”

    1. Not as far as I know, Joshua. If there is any kind of similarity of story line even I regret to admit that I wouldn’t know. I read my first Bujold novel, Shards of Honor, a few months ago and enjoyed it very much. The Vorkosigan novels are a big favorite in the SF book club I belong to and I’m determined to read more of them.

      1. There is a major character with a similar name, but I googled it and the name in the Vorgosigan Saga is spelled: Elli Quinn So, not related to that series.

  1. Carl, this book sounds appealing, but I’m afraid I’m turned off by The Legend of Ellie Quin being the first of a series. Unless a book series catches on like the Harry Potter books, or The Hunger Games, I just won’t read a series, especially one that ends abruptly like you describe. I’m sure writers hope to create such a popular series but until I know they’ve wildly succeeded I’m too timid to try them.

    1. The nice thing about this one Jim is that it isn’t novel length and the first three are already out. I’m not sure how many he plans to write in the series.

      I understand the trepidation when trying new things. That is one of the things I liked about trying out Alex’s first book is that it was very reasonably priced which leveled out the risk vs. reward.

  2. More than 50 years later and people are still writing Heinlein juveniles. Do you think authors like Scarrow consciously set out to write the next Heinlein Juvenile? Or, do you think it’s just that we can’t help but compare YA science fiction to Heinlein’s juveniles?

    1. I think this probably has more to do with me than anything else. I did not read Heinlein when I was a child and only started sampling his juvenile works over these last few years. On top of that I’ve read two of Andre Norton’s juveniles over the last few months so I have that framework in my head. Additionally Allen Steele wrote a very obvious homage to Heinlein’s juveniles in his recently published book Apollo’s Outcasts which was excellently done.

      I think I am like most people in that I have a tendency to categorize things and this framework, which is certainly not something Heinlein invented, is one that immediately calls his work to mind whenever I see something resembling it. I am not sure how Alex Scarrow or any other author would take to that categorization but I certainly mean it as the highest form of compliment.

      1. Some authors like Alexi Panshin or Spider Robinson would certainly embrace the label. But, I’m sure others would reject it.

        I’m not sure I’d call “Time Traders” and “Star Born” juveniles. Was she definitely writing to a YA audience? Here I am rejecting the label on her behalf and I don’t even know the whole story. :)

        1. I’ve seen them listed as juveniles elsewhere which is where I came up with the distinction. Heinlein’s juveniles seem to be pretty well respected so as I said I meant it as a compliment (and now all of you admittedly more well-read readers can tell me why I’m wrong :) ).

          I’m not so sure either of those by Norton were written to a YA audience at the time, but they are certainly YA/teen-level books in regards to their ‘boy’s adventure’ motifs and tame subject matter. And like Heinlein’s juveniles there seems to be an attempt to educate within the framework of the story.

  3. Nice review. I really enjoy it when my SF has little, every day tech that is beyond where we are today. I don’t need to know how it works, or the steps between where we are now and how it got to the point in the book; I just like a good plot with movies on my finger nails and a soda that won’t leave me bored. I’ll be adding this one to my TBR pile.

    1. I’ve started the second volume (novella, whatever) and it has picked up nicely right where it left off and has introduced the villain (or “a” villain) of the piece. I like where this is going.

      It may be important to note that for all my YA comparisons above that the protagonist turns twenty early on in the story and for all her innocence there is the potential for some more mature themes as she settles into New Haven. This is hinted at in her early experiences in the city at the end of this first volume.

  4. Very insightful review, Carl. Thank you.

    To answer your question, there’s no link to the Vorkosigan Saga! I’ll be honest and admit I’ve never read any Heinlein. If I was going to point to a SciFi writer that has influenced me it would Philip Jose Farmer and his RIVERWORLD series.

    And of course Alan Moore, and his classic series for 2000AD, HALO JONES.

    Character-driven SciFi is where it’s at for me. Not obsessing over the gadgets/gizmos/aliens/fantastic worlds, rather, obsessing how the characters react to all those things.

    best

    Alex Scarrow (author – ELLIE QUIN)

    1. Thanks so much Alex, and this answers the question I just left you on my site about the review over here. :)

      Thanks for the insight on the Bujold link, or lack thereof I should say. The similarity in names just goes to show how small a world it is, even in the many worlds of fiction. I have yet to read Farmer, but Alan Moore is someone whose work I’ve enjoyed over the years.

  5. Very interesting story and a nice review. Just hearing a summary this probably would not appeal to me, but you have piqued my interest. Since you mentioned sci fi juveniles, I want to compare it to Red Planet that I read recently. It concerns me that the ending is left hanging, but it really seems like this is three connected novellas… Anyway, I will give it try. Maybe in February.

    1. The nice thing about the open ending is there are two more books, volumes, episodes to go to right after this, so that is nice. It does end in a good place but not in a way that you would be satisfied only reading that one part. Which is, I imagine, what Alex Scarrow was going for.

  6. As ever, great review Carl and good to see you over here too! This seems like a great choice for reading as part of the Sci-Fi experience you’re running and I’m looking forward to trying it out. Even better it’s an amazon Prime lending library book, in the UK at least, so I can try our the first in the series for free! Win win.

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