the Little Red Reviewer

Fool’s War, by Sarah Zettel

Posted on: April 30, 2012

Fool’s War, by Sarah Zettel

published in 1997

where I got it: borrowed from a friend (thanks E! I’ll get it back to you right soon!)










With so many new books that feature female protags who kick ass, sometimes it’s hard to believe books like that have been around for a while.  Sarah Zettel’s Fool’s War is one such book,  and in classic Zettel fashion, this is a space opera that will get you thinking about things you weren’t expecting, and keep you on the edge of your seat the entire time.  If you are a fan of Kameron Hurley or Elizabeth Bear, or just looking for some damn good space opera, this will be right up your alley.

In this far future, we have colonized a number of star systems, and we have FTL ships and Artificial intelligences. Due to a large enough number of AIs that have gone rogue and slaughtered entire colonies, many ship owners are leery of allowing any kind of untethered AI access to their systems.

Katmer Al Shei is a partner in a timeshare transport ship. Basically, she has the ship for 8 months, and then her brother-in-law has the ship for 8 months. The beginning of the book and the set up for our main plot line has her taking possession of the ship, collecting her small crew, recruiting a new pilot, and accepting the gift of a contracted Ship’s Fool.  Fools – part  entertainer, part psychoanalyst, part ship’s counselor, these are the only people who are guaranteed to keep your tightly wound crew members from going crazy in their tight quarters.  Katmer’s new Fool, Evelyn Dobbs, promises that she’s one of the Guild’s best.

Katmer isn’t going to be a time share shipper forever. She works these crappy quick runs to earn enough money for ship with large enough quarters for her children and husband to travel with her. She’s only a few trips away from telling her husband to have their dream ship commissioned. In the meantime, she’ll enjoy a few minutes of her husbands recorded voice every evening. Written in 1997, sometimes bits of Fool’s War felt a little bit dated. But Katmer’s method of communicating with her husband is so damn romantic that I don’t care if it feels a little dated.

If you haven’t guessed from her name, Katmer is Muslim. How often do you run into a space opera where our main character is a Muslim woman? Katmer is fairly observant (it’s hilarious when her cousin chides her for missing prayer), she wears hijab, and doesn’t allow men she isn’t related to to see her bare face.  It’s amazing and wonderful, everywhere Katmer goes, there is something in place to protect women who choose not to show their faces.  There is a scene where she is nearly arrested, it’s female guards who come for her.  there is a scene where ID photos need to be taken, all the men leave the room so the women can have their bare faces photographed by other women.  This isn’t a book about a Muslim woman who owns a transport ship. It’s a book about what happens aboard a transport ship that is owned by a Muslim woman. there is a difference.  Katmer doesn’t kick ass in the traditional sense (she’s not going to punch anyone), but no one gets in her way, that’s for sure. Well done, Zettel, well done.

The story really gets going when Katmer learns her brother-in-law has left something dangerous onboard.  Beyond the possible AI virus that may have gotten loose in the ship’s computer system, there are plenty of personalities to keep Dobbs busy, plenty of people who are already at each other’s throats, for one difference of culture and opinion or another.  The more things change, the more they stay the same, no? While Katmer is chasing the ghost of an AI, Dobbs has her work cut out for her, and things are about to get personal.

I’ve only mentioned Katmer and Dobbs, but Fool’s War is populated by a rainbow of other fascinating characters as well, including the pilot Yerusha, who is of a culture that believes AIs are reincarnated humans; communications officer Lipinski who is the survivor of a colony destroyed by a rogue Ai, Katmer’s cousin Resit who is the ship’s lawyer, and their other family members back on Earth.

I have a very hard decision to make right now.   to spoil the surprise or not to?  It’s such a brilliantly designed thing, such a perfect blend of humanity and ghosts in the machine, it really is a tough decision for me.  If it makes you feel any better, the twist shows up fairly early in the book, allowing the reader the joy of seeing if other characters will figure out what’s going on. So sorry, looks like I’ve decided not to spoil, or at least not to spoil most interesting bits.

Katmer Al Shei is pretty sure she’s the main character, but keep your eye on Dobbs. She might understand humor, but she doesn’t quite understand humanity.  Raised and educated by The Fool’s Guild, Dobbs owes them her life. when that guild starts to splinter Dobbs will have to make decisions that will affect not only her future, but the future of humanity. Who can she trust with her secrets? Quite a bit of pressure to put on a twenty five year old woman!

This is a book about so many different things, and that is something I love about Sarah Zettel’s fiction. We get intimate looks at characters, but also a dangerous and multifaceted big picture as well.  The dialog is dry and witty, with a few well timed jokes thrown in here and there that will have you laughing out loud. Even in the slower bits in the middle, I couldn’t stop turning the pages. Zettel had me instantly invested in these characters. it’s been a few days since I finished the book, and I am still thinking about them.

Note to self: when looking for well written space opera that’s easy to get into but deeper than you think, start with the Z’s.

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19 Responses to "Fool’s War, by Sarah Zettel"

You almost never hear about books like this unless you really go looking for them. Thanks for a great review and an interesting find – will see if I can get a copy of this one!


i know it’s available digital, but the hard copy is sadly out of print. and it’s too bad that wonderful gems like this are so under the radar. :(


Adding this to my list of books to eventually acquire. I’m intrigued by the idea of using a Muslim woman as a sci-fi protagonist.


Zettel has gone and made her own ebook of Fool’s War, and she’s done a very nice job of it. There is the “Warner Aspect edition” available in the Kindle store but the scan hasn’t been copyedited and you don’t get the cool cover painting by Donato Giancola.
She sells the ebook here: (scroll aaaall the way down to the “Z”s.) =)


Oooooh, awesome. I’m now browsing that website. So many good books that I want to read!


I know I’m always bitching about e-books, but in this case all i have to say is E-books to the rescue!!


I have heard lots of good things about Zettel, but I have never read anything by her before. I will add this to my list. :)


if the older titles prove hard to find, she’s got some newer titles and series out as well, a YA series and a humorous mystery vampire series. she also did a stand along SF thiller a few years ago called Bitter Angels (written under her pen name, C.L. Anderson)


That sounds really fascinating; I have Zettel’s Reclaimation and have been meaning to read it for a while, so I’m glad to hear she’s good at writing accessible space operas.

Great review, as always.


thanks. :D I think Reclamation may have been her first novel? I’m curious to hear what you think of it.


[...] Quiet Invasion” by Sarah Zettel – Andrea over at The Little Red Reviewer recently reviewed “Fool’s War” by Sarah Zettel, which made me want to read it.  It’s out of print, so I was hoping that I might be able to [...]


“This isn’t a book about a Muslim woman who owns a transport ship. It’s a book about what happens aboard a transport ship that is owned by a Muslim woman.”

It annoys me that when a book doesn’t have a white male protagonist, often the focus is on the protagonist’s Otherness instead of the plot. The premise of having an actual guild that educates people to be ship shrinks sounds very interesting, too.

Thanks for reviewing this and bringing it to my attention. *puts on her to-read list*


true dat. What’s so wonderful about how Zettel does it is that she’s not focusing on what makes Katmer Al Shei “other”, she’s focusing on what makes Katmer a whole, entire person, instead of a person who simply has a list of traits that belong to them.

I was torn to even mention it in my review. The friend who lent me the book, she just said “I know you like Zettel, read this, it’s really good”, with no descriptors of the characters. Had she told me of what to expect, maybe I would have looked on the book in an entirely different light (ooh, it’s “other”!) from the beginning?

and the Guild? Even cooler than it sounds!


[...] of her characters, but I feel like I can relate to them. I’ve recently enjoyed Zettel’s Fool’s War and Bitter Angels (written as C.L. Anderson), and her new paranormal Vampire Chef series is getting [...]


[...] for an honest review.  I first heard about Sarah Zettel when I read Andrea’s review of Fool’s War, a sci-fi novel which featured a Muslim woman as a protagonist, and I’ve been meaning to read [...]


[…] for an honest review.  I first heard about Sarah Zettel when I read Andrea’s review of Fool’s War, a sci-fi novel which featured a Muslim woman as a protagonist, and I’ve been meaning to read […]


[…] Quiet Invasion” by Sarah Zettel – Andrea over at The Little Red Reviewer recently reviewed “Fool’s War” by Sarah Zettel, which made me want to read it.  It’s out of print, so I was hoping that I might be able to […]


[…] had been meaning to read Fool’s War ever since Andrea reviewed it back in 2012.  I enjoy reading sci-fi and fantasy with a diverse cast of characters, and the […]


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