The Improbable Theory of Ana and Zak, by Brian Katcher
Katherine Tegen Books, 2015, Trade Paperback $9.99
a review by Rich Horton
At Archon in 2018 I shared an autographing table with Brian Katcher. Since neither of us had signing lines to rival George R. R. Martin, we had got to talk to each other a fair bit, and we exchanged copies of each other’s book. I came out ahead in that deal, with The Improbable Theory of Ana and Zak, no doubt.
Brian is local, from the St. Louis area, now living in outstate Missouri. We already had a mutual friend, Kristin Darden, who is part of the book group (run by Mark Tiedemann) that I participate in. I believe Kristin went to college with Brian. And, indeed, she showed up at our signing …
This isn’t a science fiction book, but it’s SF-adjacent, in that all the action takes place at an SF convention. (Based, to some extent, on Brian’s experiences at Archon when he was much younger – though I doubt he ever got up to the more hair-raising things Ana and Zak get up to in this book!) As such, the atmosphere, and the characters, are readily recognizable to those of us who attend cons regularly.
Ana is a smart kid in her senior year of High School in Tacoma, WA. She’s obsessed with her grades, and with her outside activities – in part because her parents insist on this, in part because she wants to be able to go to college somewhere besides the University of Washington at Tacoma, and in part because her parents won’t let her do anything else, for initially mysterious reasons having to do with her sister Nichole, and with the fact that she doesn’t have a sister anymore. One of her activities is Quiz Bowl.
Zak is also fairly smart, but he’s a slacker. His father died of cancer not too long ago, and his mother has remarried, and Zak can’t stand his stepfather. Though, it should be said, the stepfather doesn’t seem like a bad guy – maybe just a bit clueless. Zak’s career plan is Tacoma Community College, followed by some kind of tech service job maybe – just enough to keep him in gaming equipment and allow him to attend the occasional con. Oh, and he has a bit of a crush on Ana, who has no idea he even exists (and whose self image is skewed enough that she can’t believe anyone could have a crush on her.)
Then Zak’s academic advisor, who is also the Quiz Bowl sponsor, shanghais him onto the Quiz Bowl team – because she’s caught him cheating on a paper, and because she thinks he’s better than that. Zak agrees in order to be able to graduate – and then realizes the Quiz Bowl tournament is the same weekend as his favorite con! All is lost!
The Quiz Bowl star, however, is Ana’s kid brother Clayton, who is just as hemmed in by his parents as Ana. But he’s a bit more rebellious, and when Zak mentions to Clayton that the convention he’s missing is in Seattle, not too far from the Quiz Bowl hotel, Clayton sneaks out and goes to the con. Which is a disaster on several levels – for the Quiz Bowl team, and more importantly for Ana, who is convinced her parents will blame her. So the only thing to do is for Ana to go to the con and retrieve Clayton – and Ana needs a native guide, i.e. Zak.
So they go, Ana naturally contemptuous of Zak, and of all his nerdy friends. And Clayton proves to be hard to track down … meaning we get a tour of various convention traditions – the gaming room, a filk session, an SCA tournament, etc.. At each of which Ana or Zak or both cause chaos, either because they don’t know what’s up (Ana), or they’re trying to catch up with Clayton (both). And then something really scary happens …
The reader knows where this is going. This genre of YA novel is as well-defined as any romance novel – the mismatched kids are going to realize that they have more in common than they knew. They are going to (with the help of the other person) come to some place of, if not resolution, at least improvement or better understanding of their own family situation. They are going to become at least close friends, probably bf/gf – and, yes, all this eventuates. And that’s cool, because what matters is the journey. Do we believe in these kids, and care for them? Yes. And are their adventures, no matter how small-scale or large-scale, enjoyable? Yes. Will their experiences at least set them on the path to a better future? Yes.
I really liked this book, and I’m glad I had the good fortune to semi-randomly encounter it. (Kristin tells me that Brian’s Almost Perfect is even better.) I don’t think you need to be an SF fan, or a con-goer, to like the book – not at all. But if you are, there’s a bit extra in there for you.