It’s been a century of peace since Earth became a colony of an alien race with far reaches into the galaxy. Some die-hard extremists still oppose alien rule on Earth, but Donovan Reyes isn’t one of them. His dad holds the prestigious position of Prime Liaison in the collaborationist government, and Donovan’s high social standing along with his exocel (a remarkable alien technology fused to his body) guarantee him a bright future in the security forces. That is, until a routine patrol goes awry and Donovan’s abducted by the human revolutionary group Sapience, determined to end alien control.
When Sapience realizes whose son Donovan is, they think they’ve found the ultimate bargaining chip . But the Prime Liaison doesn’t negotiate with terrorists, not even for his own son. Left in the hands of terrorists who have more uses for him dead than alive, the fate of Earth rests on Donovan’s survival. Because if Sapience kills him, it could spark another intergalactic war. And Earth didn’t win the last one . . .
While reading, Exo by Fonda Lee, I just kept thinking, ‘Finally. FINALLY.’
Finally, a young adult dystopian/science-fiction novel with a writer that understands the nuances and complexities of colonialism and oppression. Finally, a story that isn’t just about the suppression of individualistic expression and calling it oppression, but a story that understands that oppression is systemic, involves power, and is more than about teens spearheading a revolution for the sake of plot and action. Finally, a book that has delivered a very nuanced story that shows that systemic oppression and overcoming it is not simple, but can be morally grey.
For this reason alone, I loved Exo instantly.
Exo is set in the future where Earth has been colonized by an alien race called the Zhree. But rather than portray Zhree as a violent and autocratic oppressive power, the Zhree have made a home on Earth as well as a strategic outpost in the midst of a galactic war. They are seemingly ‘benevolent’ after centuries of a bloody colonial war over Earth’s hegemony, and have in their hands the subservience of humankind in exchange for humankind’s protection from other alien species that want Earth to gain an edge in a greater galactic war. The Zhree as oppressors are complex individuals, with a fascinating power dynamic that realistically echoes the power dynamics we can witness within our own society. Indeed, Earth has been conquered and invaded by aliens, but is that such a bad thing? Exo asks these powerful and compelling questions with no clear cut answer.
“We’re still fighting for the same thing we were fighting for back then … There’s nothing more precious than freedom. Freedom is worth any cost.”
The book follows Donovan, a member of the eponymous Exo – humans who have been genetically enhanced using Zhree technology and are formidable human soldiers. Donovan has never questioned his station as a soldier and follows the doctrine laid out by his Zhree superiors — that is, until he gets kidnapped and entangled with a pro-human and anti-Zhree organization called Sapience. They’re terrorists – or freedom fighters, depending on which side you ask – and their agenda threatens everything that the Zhree and Donovan stand for. Therefore, Exo poses some fantastic and thought-provoking questions about the price of freedom, conflict, and subjugation, what it means to be free – and not just ideologically, but the ‘practical’ consequences as well, such as who dies in your endeavour for freedom?
Exo‘s brilliance is captured and evidenced by its boldness to ask questions that, perhaps, we don’t even have the answer to. For once, I felt like I was reading a book that seriously questioned perceptions of freedom fighters/terrorists. Historically in young adult fiction, freedom fighters are often the ‘good guys’ who challenge an unambiguous ‘bad guy’, leaving no nuance or ambiguity of the moral positions of either side. In Exo, however, both ‘sides’ are discerned and scrutinized, all through the eyes of a confused soldier who doesn’t know what is right or wrong. I loved the intelligent discourse that was not only compelling and fascinating, but also very down-to-earth in its perspective.
“Why do humans still hate us so much … ? Haven’t we governed them fairly, given them all advantages of exocels, shared technology with them?”
A large proportion of the characters in Exo were morally grey. And I loved it. The leaders of either ‘side’ of the conflict were fascinating characters, both with valid perspectives who just want to do what they think is best for humankind. Chief of all was Donovan himself; he begins as an individual who knows who or for what he fights for, but when his views and ideology are challenged and another side is presented, he begins to question himself and his superiors. Like leaders of either side, he too wants to do the right thing, but struggles immensely to discern what the right thing is. There was a romance in the story, a component that wasn’t as interesting, but thankfully it didn’t overshadow the narrative and, against the backdrop of the book’s events, makes Donovan’s character development much more interesting.
Listen. You need to read Exo. Not only is it one of the best science-fiction books I’ve read with excellent political and social discourse, but it’s a book that doesn’t present a clear-cut answer. Exo engages, provokes, and challenges, and encourages you to make your own decision and judgement. Exo is a brilliant book, one that will inevitably probe fascinating discussion and thought.
Rating: 4.5 / 5
Is this book for you?
Premise in a sentence: The life of a human soldier who serves Earth’s alien masters is turned upside down when he is kidnapped by an anti-alien organization.
Perfect for: Readers who love science-fiction, political and social discourse, and war/revolution/freedom narratives.
Genre: Young adult, post-apocalyptic, science-fiction.
Recommended? Tired of poorly-written and -conceived science fiction novels? If yes, then YES.
Trigger/content warnings: death, terrorism, violence, torture, executions.
- Have you read Exo or any of Fonda Lee’s books? If so, what did you think of them?
- What is your favourite science-fiction/dystopia/post-apocalyptic book you’ve read, and why is it your favourite?
- Do you like morally grey characters and stories? Or do you think heroes of such stories need to have clear ‘morals’?