Zack Jackson & The Cult of Athos tells the story of Zack as he leaves Earth for the first time with the Junior Rangers, an interstellar group kind of like the Boy Scouts (although apparently much more open in their membership since there are girls and non-Earthlings and creatures with no gender). He’s the youngest and newest member in his group, rounded out by Jenny—a human girl, though from a colony rather than Earth, Mungus—an Ersidian, which is a tribal species that look a bit like warrior bears, and Ix—a Valtraxian, which is an insectoid species with no gender.
The ship the kids are traveling on crashes, and their shuttle ends up far from the main wreck. They’re on their own on a foreign and hostile planet, having to trek back to civilization without much of the technology they’ve come to depend on. When they do reach the city, they encounter a conspiracy that could cause problems for the entire known world.
The world is very detailed—if your kid is into science and insists on knowing how everything works, this book does its best to answer those questions while necessarily stretching and twisting things beyond what’s currently possible and known. It’s fairly hard science fiction with a young protagonist and a younger audience in mind. There are a lot of familiar things, too—Wyoming centuries in the future isn’t actually all that different from how it is now. Technology, while advanced, is recognizable. There are still hand-held devices connecting you to the equivalent of the Internet (although the coverage has expanded to encompass many galaxies). All the cool kids are getting implants and upgrades that let them access information with their brains, and that improve their senses, such as night vision, zooming in, etc.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Sex and Prejudice
There are a lot of misconceptions about alien races, especially among those who have never left their home planets or ventured to the big cities where there’s more diversity. The book spends time showing that many of those are wrong—especially if things sound really out there, they probably are. Still, you shouldn’t assume that everyone in the known world will have the same assumptions you do.
Jenny mentions in passing that she doesn’t have time to think about a boyfriend or a girlfriend—it’s obvious that sexual preference within your own species is no longer an issue. During the course of the novel, she starts to have romantic feelings for Mungus. She knows her parents won’t be happy if she gets into a relationship with someone from another species, but she’s willing to risk it—they should be more open-minded!
Mungus, who returns Jenny’s feelings, has a lot to learn, too—like not every culture has the custom of multiple wives.
A Devoran—a lizard-like species—hits on Zack, who is mostly clueless although the encounter makes him uncomfortable. His older squadmates explain everything to him, with much embarrassment and teasing. It turns out that a human getting involved with a Devoran can be deadly due to a common and severe allergic reaction to their saliva. Overall, Zack thinks kissing is pretty icky, and kissing a lizard is really icky.
Although all of the kids bring their own prejudices and biases on the trip, soon they learn that friendship transcends species, and love can do the same. It stays pretty PG, though—aside from some discussion of sex after the Devoran incident, “dating” is mostly hanging out, holding hands, and some implied kissing.
There’s a good bit of puking and going to the bathroom. Probably more than is strictly necessary for the story. It’s not really played for laughs; mostly it’s just a fact of life that needs to be dealt with, ideally with as little embarrassment as possible.
Each kid has some problems with their families. Ix is outcast, having decided not to take on the role its family determined for it. It has no support system at all and is surprised to become such good friends with the other kids.
Mungus feels the pressure of tradition from his proud warrior family. He needs to prove himself repeatedly.
Jenny feels another kind of pressure—her family sends her to the best schools and expects her to excel at everything. They’re very controlling of every aspect of her life. They won’t be happy that she’s dating Mungus.
Zack’s family is probably the most supportive, but he’s isolated from them for most of the book. When he is in contact with them, his mother is embarrassingly overprotective, from his point of view.
Stupid Evil Adults
Most of the adults are clueless and ineffectual or downright evil. It makes them pretty easy to get around, though. The power in this book is definitely with the kids.
Violence and Injury
Zack in particular gets really beaten up, although each of the kids suffers at least one major injury. The bad guys are definitely prepared to kill the kids. Trauma brings the kids closer together—Mungus warms up to them after Zack and Jenny save his life, for instance.
Guns are very much a part of Zack’s world—the book opens with him target shooting at cans. He seems pretty responsible about it. The opening scene is interesting in that it could easily fit in a book set in the 1950’s instead of far in the future.
There’s some drinking among the adults. Zack gets shot up with strong painkillers after his injuries.
There are a lot of stereotypes about the different species that will look familiar, even if the species itself seems alien (ha!). Most are disproven without making all the cultures the same at heart. The kids are remarkably open-minded about all of this, looking at it all as a learning experience.
There’s a female pilot who stands out enough that I assume she’ll play a role in future books.
Jenny tends to be very classically girly in many ways. She’s also emotional and she cries with some frequency. Overall, though, you get the sense that this is just who Jenny is, and not the way all girls are/should be.
This will be an interesting read for kids who enjoy really thinking about what the future world might be like—this book offers a version that has been carefully thought out, even if your kids might think the future will look different from this.
The influence of many scientists and works of science fiction can be felt throughout the book. This is explicit in the “Dedicated To” and “Inspired By” sections in the credits, but many people will be able to identify homages even without the list. In that way, it serves as a possible introduction to science fiction for kids who aren’t quite ready to tackle some of the classics yet.
Because of the world building, it can be a bit dense text-wise. It’s probably best for precocious readers maybe 10 and up.
Disclaimer: I was a beta reader for this novel and the author supplied me with a copy of the book in exchange for a fair and honest review.
Zack Jackson & The Cult of Athos by Hans Cummings
Published in 2012 by Hans Cummings
First in a series, followed by Zack Jackson & The Hives of Valtra and Zack Jackson & The Cytherean Academy
Read personal paperback copy