Zettel, Sarah 1966–

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Zettel, Sarah 1966–

PERSONAL: Born 1966, in Sacramento, CA; married; husband's name Tim; children: a son. Education: University of Michigan, B.A. Hobbies and other interests: Biology, medicine, anthropology, computers, materials science.

ADDRESSES: Home—Ypsilanti, MI. E-mail[email protected]

CAREER: Science-fiction novelist and short-story writer; technical writer specializing in software systems instruction manuals; performance storyteller.

AWARDS, HONORS: Locus Award for best first novel, 1997, for Reclamation; New York Times notable book citation, 1997, for Fool's War.



Reclamation, Aspect/Warner (New York, NY), 1996.

Fool's War, Aspect/Warner (New York, NY), 1997.

Playing God, Warner (New York, NY), 1998.

The Quiet Invasion, Warner (New York, NY), 2000.

Kingdom of Cages, Warner (New York, NY), 2001.


A Sorcerer's Treason: A Novel of Isavalta, Tor (New York, NY), 2002.

The Usurper's Crown: A Novel of Isavalta, Tor (New York, NY), 2003.

The Firebird's Vengeance: A Novel of Isavalta, Tor (New York, NY), 2004.


In Camelot's Shadow, Luna (New York, NY), 2004.

For Camelot's Honor, Luna (New York, NY), 2005.

Under Camelot's Banner, Luna (New York, NY), 2006.


Contributor of short stories to periodicals, including Analog and Realms of Fantasy. Contributor of novella "The Thief of Stones" to Jim Baen's Universe, an online magazine.

SIDELIGHTS: Sarah Zettel is an award-winning author of science fiction and fantasy tales, including Reclamation and the works in the "Isavalta" series. Zettel began writing when she was in junior high school and sold her first story at age twenty. Later in her twenties, she sold stories to Analog, one of the more august of the traditional science fiction periodicals. According to a profile in that magazine by Jay Kay Klein, Zettel was guided toward the genre by her father, a fan. Well-traveled in the United States and England (she spent a summer in London), she graduated from the University of Michigan, then settled into a day job as a writer of software instruction manuals. At first, Klein revealed, Zettel felt she was not well-informed enough to write science fiction, and decided she might be better suited to writing fantasy. Her critical success as the author of science fiction novels has, however, proven her early misgivings unwarranted. On the Rambles Web site, Conor O'Connor described Zettel's work as "SF that even the choosiest of connoisseurs will find worthy of their close attention."

Zettel's first novel, Reclamation, is a long, large-scale work that the New York Times Book Review's Gerald Jonas felt to be in the mold of Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein. The setting is an interplanetary human colonial system in which a powerful group known as the Rhodulant Vitae are searching for the original home world of humanity. They think they find it on the planet known as the Realm of the Nameless Powers; however, that planet's sun is apparently not our own Sol, and its inhabitants, although entirely human in appearance and behavior, turn out to be artificial replicas. While interfering politically and militarily on the Realm of the Nameless Powers, the Vitae also hunt for the novel's two main characters, Eric Born and Arla Stone in the Wall, who are both natives of the Realm and thus, theoretically, artificial. The stones for which Arla is named have been handed down through the maternal generations and, legend has it, are mementos of the moving of a planet. Analog reviewer Tom Easton, in addition to admiring the novel's "scope and sweep, intrigue and grandiose technologies and grand adventure," hailed the author's theme of human independence, even for artificially created humans, and called Zettel "a writer to watch." Publishers Weekly critic Maria Simson's review was less glowing, on grounds of the familiarity of the novel's premise, but acknowledged that "Zettel's writing is crisp, and the story moves at an appropriately rapid pace … Deft action scenes and wry humor help smooth out the trouble spots." Jonas, applauding Reclamation as a "fresh updating of a familiar premise," elaborated: "Ms. Zettel's confident treatment of her ambitious material shows just how entertaining the 'grand tradition of Heinlein and Asimov' can still be in sympathetic hands."

Jonas also praised Zettel's second novel, Fool's War, calling it "even more successful" than its predecessor. This time, the interplanetary agglomeration in which the novel is set is known as Settled Space; it is united by faster-than-light transmission of information. Long space voyages within Settled Space are enlivened by professional Fools who belong to a Fool's Guild; the protagonist, Evelyn Dobbs, is one such Fool. She is serving on a ship, the Pasadena, which is crewed by brilliant misfits and fugitives. The plot, which Jonas said proceeds by "crafty misdirection," exposes a threat to human control of Settled Space. "Ms. Zettel understands that the essence of cyberspace is metaphor," remarked Jonas. Reviewer Steven H. Silver, commenting for the SF Site, found that the complexity of the novel's large cast of characters and the author's ambition in creating a fictional universe mildly daunting, but added that the story "is an interesting one, and coupled with her characters and universe well worth the occasional confusion which litters the book." He concluded that Zettel's first two novels indicated a promising career for the writer.

Zettel discussed the themes of her first two novels in an interview with Locus: "If Reclamation is about anything, it is about the question of what's human. Is human a biological definition? Is human a mental definition? That's the Big Concept." She added: "What it's really about is a couple of people trying to come to terms with their background and who they are." Commenting on the themes in Fool's War, Zettel told the interviewer that the novel is "very much a story of prejudice. Who do we hate and why? Why do we fear each other?" She added that she was influenced while writing the book by the events surrounding U.S. involvement in the Gulf War and the negative treatment of Arabic-Americans due to their ancestry.

Subsequent Zettel novels have fulfilled the high expectations of her early critics. In Playing God, a futuristic urban planner named Lynn Nussbaumer seeks to help the warring factions of the Dedelphi to cleanse their ecologically devastated planet. Despite Nussbaumer's best efforts, the Dedelphi nurture their old grudges against a rival clan, and open warfare erupts. Booklist reviewer Roberta Johnson felt that Zettel "captures both loving, emotional relationships and the feverish thrill of battle," and a Publishers Weekly critic concluded: "Readers will embrace this complex, multidimensional saga."

The Quiet Invasion considers what might happen when human colonists of Venus must vie for the honor of inhabiting the planet with a race of aliens who are facing certain death in their former environment. Johnson, in another Booklist review, noted that the novel demonstrates Zettel's "gift for creating fully realized characters." The critic also praised the manner in which the humans and aliens "come to a riveting confrontation." A Publishers Review contributor likewise felt that Zettel "has a gift for creating fascinating aliens with rich cultures." The critic found The Quiet Invasion to be "a first-contact novel worth reading and relishing."

In an interview with SF Site, Zettel said: "One of the things I was doing with the aliens in The Quiet Invasion was creating that advanced society which had ideas about morality and proper use of natural resources that were radically different from ours, as the Europeans were from the American Indians. I did not want to write a story about the invasion of Earth, so I had to create a race capable of living nearby, which meant either on the Moon, on Mars, or on Venus. I picked Venus."

Zettel's novel Kingdom of Cages combines science fiction adventure with a coming-of-age plot in which two teenagers must fight for the right to control their own genetic material. The setting is Pandora, a carefully-controlled planet that has remained immune to a "Diversity Crisis" that is causing fatal mutations and population collapse on other planets. When representatives of the threatened planets demand help from Pandora, the future of the human race is seen to lie in the genes of Chena and Teal Trust, sisters who find themselves at the center of an ethical debate on the value of one life versus millions. In the Library Journal, Jackie Cassada called Kingdom of Cages "a taut, action-filled coming-of-age tale." Johnson in Booklist admired the way Zettel "realizes [the] conflict as well as she paints the personalities driving it to a startling conclusion." A Publishers Weekly reviewer observed: "Nothing is the least bit forced or overly clever in this … seamless blend of concept, plot, and characterization."

Zettel published her first fantasy novel, A Sorcerer's Treason: A Novel of Isavalta, in 2002. The main character of the story, Bridget Lederle, is a lighthouse keeper in Wisconsin. Life changes dramatically for her when she rescues a sailor who turns out to be from the magical world of Isavalta. She learns that her abilities to see the past and future stem from her father, who came from that world. The sailor is actually the lord sorcerer to Medeoan, the dowager empress of Isavalta, and he persuades Bridget to travel with him to his world. Once there, Bridget becomes involved in a power struggle between the empress, her sorcerer, and the empress's son, Mikkel. "This sweet-tempered melodrama will appeal mainly to younger female fantasy fans," commented a Publishers Weekly reviewer.

The Usurper's Crown: A Novel of Isavalta, the prequel to A Sorcerer's Treason, focuses on Medeoan's rise to power. In the work, the young empress marries the ruthless Prince Kacha against the wishes of her mentor, the sorcerer Avanasy. Blinded by her love for Kacha, Medeoan banishes Avanasy from her domain, and he finds refuge as a Wisconsin fisherman. When the sorcerer receives word that Kacha has betrayed the empress and waged war against neighboring Hung Tse, he returns to Isavalta with Ingrid Loftfield, "whose love leads her into a strange and deadly adventure," noted Cassada. After Hung Tse unleashes its ultimate weapon, the deadly Firebird, Ingrid is called upon to perform a special mission that, if successful, will ensure Isavalta's future. In The Usurper's Crown, "Zettel achieves subtle effects, whether in the magical workings based on weaving or in the balanced understandings of her protagonists' motives," observed a Publishers Weekly critic.

A dangerous creature unleashes its fury in The Firebird's Vengeance: A Novel of Isavalta, the third volume in Zettel's fantasy series. Thirty years have passed since Empress Medeoan used her powers to imprison the Firebird; upon her death, the spell is broken. Released from captivity, the Firebird wreaks havoc on the landscape, devastating both Hung Tse and Isavalta. Bridget Lederle, the heroine of A Sorcerer's Treason, and her long-lost daughter, Anna, join forces to save the troubled nations. Reviewing The Firebird's Vengeance in Library Journal, Cassada deemed the work "a finely drawn portrait of a strong woman's devotion to those who love her." Kliatt reviewer Deirdre Root stated that the novel "is a page-turner, the world complex and fascinating and the action nonstop."

A reluctant sci-fi writer at first, Zettel is now a recognized talent. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly commented that the author "has a gift for creating fascinating aliens with rich cultures and radically different, though still comprehensible, mindsets." Her curiosity provides her with bountiful amounts of story ideas. "The ideas," she noted in her SF Site interview, "come from current events, either in the news, or recent developments in science. They also come from my reading histories and biographies, and scientific memoirs…. Finding the ideas is the easy part. Sorting them through and turning them into stories, now, that's the hard work."

An avid reader of fairy tales and folklore, the author had long dreamed of writing contemporary stories that harkened back to those classic tales. "Like the stories we tell about our future and our technology," Zettel explained on her Web site, "the stories we tell about our past and our magic are powerful and delightful. They give us another look at what makes is human."



Analog, December, 1991; May, 1993, p. 86; January, 1994; August, 1994, p. 121; June, 1996, pp. 147-148; May, 1997, Tom Easton, review of Fool's War, p. 146; November, 1998, Tom Easton, review of Playing God, p. 131; September, 2000, Tom Easton, review of The Quiet Invasion, p. 135.

Booklist, November 1, 1998, Roberta Johnson, review of Playing God, p. 478; January 1, 2000, Roberta Johnson, review of The Quiet Invasion, p. 888; July, 2001, Roberta Johnson, review of Kingdom of Cages, p. 1993.

Kliatt, September, 1996, p. 22; September, 2004, Sherry Hoy, review of The Usurper's Crown: A Novel of Isavalta, p. 34; January, 2006, Deirdre Root, review of The Firebird's Vengeance: A Novel of Isavalta, p. 23.

Library Journal, January, 2000, Jackie Cassada, review of The Quiet Invasion, p. 167; August, 2001, Jackie Cassada, review of Kingdom of Cages, p. 171; March 15, 2003, Jackie Cassada, review of The Usurper's Crown, p. 120; August, 2004, Jackie Cassada, review of The Firebird's Vengeance, p. 72.

Locus, January, 1998.

New York Times Book Review, July 28, 1996, Gerald Jonas, review of Reclamation, p. 24; April 6, 1997, Gerald Jonas, review of Fool's War, p. 24; February 27, 2000, Gerald Jonas, review of The Quiet Invasion, p. 26; November 11, 2001, Gerald Jonas, review of Kingdom of Cages, p. 26.

Publishers Weekly, April 15, 1996, Maria Simson, review of Reclamation, p. 62; March 3, 1997, review of Fool's War, p. 71; October 19, 1998, review of Playing God, p. 59; January 17, 2000, review of The Quiet Invasion, p. 48; June 4, 2001, review of Kingdom of Cages, p. 62; February 25, 2002, review of A Sorcerer's Treason: A Novel of Isavalta, p. 47; March 3, 2003, review of The Usurper's Crown, p. 58.

Voice of Youth Advocates, December, 1996, p. 282.


BookBrowser, http://www.bookbrowser.com/ (September 30, 2001), Harriet Klausner, review of Kingdom of Cages.

Rambles, http://www.rambles.net/ (September 30, 2001), Conor O'Connor, review of The Quiet Invasion.

SF Site, http://www.sfsite.com/ (September 30, 2001), Steven H. Silver, "A Conversation with Sarah Zettel."

Zettel von Zettel, http://www.sff.net/people/sarah-zettel (October 10, 2006).