The Story: Zodiac, by Romina Russell, is the first novel in a planned trilogy/series that focuses on teenager Rhoma Grace, the Guardian of her home world, the House of Cancer, one of twelve planets in the Zodiac system. While each of the Houses has lived relatively in peace with each other, there is an ancient force threatening to literally tear these worlds apart. Only Rhoma has been blessed to see into the future and determine what supernatural dangers might unfold. But even the ability to know what’s coming for her and her world may not be enough to save her and those she loves.
My Take: For starters, I think it’s tough to find YA sci-fi anymore as so much of that market seems flooded with urban fantasy/paranormal. Don’t get me wrong – I like urban fantasy and paranormal when they take an original or fresh approach. But sometimes I enjoy a good sci-fi read.
Zodiac (sidebar – I think the cover is gorgeous!) contains rich world-building that smartly uses the twelve constellations of the Zodiac as the basis for a twelve-planet system (where each planet is called a “House”) that has its own history. I especially enjoyed the way each system/House was unique in its environment, so no two planets were exactly alike. Along the same lines, the physical settings affected and influenced the culture and people who lived there, which delivered a sense of realism to the story.
Another strong facet of the story’s world-building was the Zodiac’s governing system. Each planet has an elected Guardian who oversees the affairs of his or her world and serves as an emissary to the other planets in the Zodiac. While I’m sure it’s tough to generate anything entirely original as far as a fictional government goes, this system in place was solidly presented and functioned according to a logical set of rules that combined tradition with ritual and formality.
Plot-wise, the novel’s central conflict is that sixteen-year-old Rhoma Grace, chief protagonist and newly-appointed Guardian of House Cancer, must contend with a series of planetary disasters, one of which strikes close to home. While her peers can predict future events using complicated instruments, Rhoma can simply read the stars thanks to a special (and sometimes confusingly-explained) “force”; and she has read that trouble is a-brewin’ in the Zodiac. Centuries ago, legend has it that there were thirteen Houses, but the thirteenth Guardian, Ophiuchus, was exiled though he vowed revenge. Now, as it turns out, the legend of the Thirteenth House just might be true. Hence, Rho sets out with her crew, including two obligatory cute/mysterious/hot love interests in the form of Hysan Dax, an envoy for House Libra, and Mathias Thais, her guide and guard. Since this novel is intended to be part of a series, it ends with a cliffhanger, so the chief conflict is never fully resolved.
Overall, I thought the plot certainly had interesting elements, especially when it delves into the legend of the Thirteenth House, but as far as serving as a carrier for the characters’ development and story arcs, it was nothing new. What kept me reading was the world-building more so than the characters as I thought Rho, Hysan, and Mathias weren’t very compelling. They weren’t annoying or boring, to be sure, but they displayed instances of immaturity. Concerning Rho especially, even though she takes her role as Guardian seriously, sometimes she seemed to act more like a teenager trying to do an adult’s job, meaning she sometimes whined, cried, and had to rely more on other’s help and less on her own judgment at times.
As expected, there is a love triangle and it carries out about what you’d expect it to if you’ve encountered these sorts of character dynamics before. But my biggest issue was not with the sort-of insta-love chemistry at work here, but the fact that Rho has a spontaneous sexual encounter with one of her “love” interests. This was a relatively brief scene, but it ruined the rest of the book for me. The reason was that I felt Rho was slightly forced into it in a way. It certainly isn’t a rape, but Rho, at this point in the story, is so overcome with mixed emotions about her people’s fate, the fate of the Zodiac, and her wishy-washy/back-and-forth feelings for Hysan and Mathias, that her “lover” seems to take advantage of her bundle of emotions. Perhaps I read it wrong, but it left me feeling uncomfortable in that Rho seems to, all of a sudden, crave sex just to set her mind at ease. Not to mention these characters are not married (call me old fashioned) and (I presume) minors; so for that, I was sorely disappointed.
This brings me to another point and that is this book’s “focus” on astrology. While the setting takes a unique spin on the twelve “signs” of the Zodiac, its focus on predicting the future seems to be based on ancient traditions for such (such as the Babylonians) more so than how most people define astrology today. Therefore, readers who are concerned about this novel being an advocate for trying to divine your future from the stars can rest assured: despite its name, Zodiac is more akin to a fantasy novel regarding prophecies, legends, and signs/omens. However, there are scenes where characters try to predict events from star/planet positions; so if you don’t care to immerse yourself in that, then that aspect of the novel’s world might be a bone of contention for you. (It wasn’t an issue for me, just to note.)
Language – Minimal (if any).
Violence – The violence is confined to the usual sci-fi fare with some natural disaster-instigated destruction and scenes of devastation and peril that, to their credit, don’t linger for pages with graphic details.
Sexual Content – As mentioned above, there is a sex scene that is more sensual foreplay than anything else, but it leaves nothing to the imagination as to what these two characters intend to do. While it isn’t too graphic, it did strike a nerve with me because of the characters’ ages and the circumstances leading up to the encounter. Based on that, despite this being marketed as YA, I actually wouldn’t recommend it for teens, young teens especially.
Overall, what kept me from rating Zodiac two-stars (in my Goodreads review) was the world-building, which really was worth the time checking out. But when that was set aside for scenes of typical YA drama and mild sci-fi stereotypes, I found my attention wandering. Thus, if you’re looking for sci-fi YA that, to its credit, possesses some very cool world-building, then Zodiac might be a good pick. But if you can’t get past the usual YA plot elements and character types, you just might want to pass by this at Warp speed.