Exo by Fonda Lee – What if Earth was invaded and colonized by aliens? This sci-fi offers a fantastic, nuanced glimpse


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 . . .

My review:

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 

Goodreads | Amazon | Book Depository | My review on Goodreads

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.

Let’s discuss!

  • 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’?

23 thoughts on “Exo by Fonda Lee – What if Earth was invaded and colonized by aliens? This sci-fi offers a fantastic, nuanced glimpse

  1. I have to add this to my tbr, I’ve read good things about EXO, but I’ve never felt compelled to read it until now! I really enjoyed your review CW; the way you explained the book was very detailed, but I don’t feel like you spoiled anything. I might order this on amazon tonight lol

    • Hi Peregrine!
      I’m glad that you added this to your TBR – good choice!
      Aw, thank you so much! I try my best not to spoil things; I think reading for yourself and discovering the exciting parts are most of the fun in reading. Let me know if you read it though – I’d love to hear your thoughts!

  2. This review CW <3. This book sounds like it's after my SF heart. Ill-conceived premises bug me to no end, so I'm happy that this takes a more a dynamic approach. I usually read SF gems in adult lit. but will definitely check out YA gems like this one.

    • Hi Glaiza!
      I agree. Moreover, premises with no substance or any underlying discourse under the guise of *revolution* annoy the heck out of me, especially because they trivialize something that could be very important and necessary.
      Yay! I hope you read it – let me know if you do? I’d love to discuss this book with you. 💛

    • Hi Kiki (please correct me if I got your name wrong)!
      I usually am too! I didn’t like The 5th Wave at all, but this one is a pleasant surprise. I’m pleased that my review convinced you! I hope you enjoy it if you read it. 💛

    • Hi Michelle!
      Thanks! It’s sad because not a lot of people have heard about this book, which is a shame. Might do a thread on Twitter to raise awareness of it soon though.
      Thank you so much, and it’s my pleasure! 💛

  3. I read the ARC and didn’t completely love it bc i felt like Donovan’s privilege didn’t get challenged enough. My favorite part was the dynamic between him and his parents and the romance was not that compelling to me. But I’m definitely looking forward to the sequel to see how things develop!

    • Hi Shenwei!
      I do agree that Donovan’s privilege wasn’t challenged enough, but it was challenged somewhat and I think it was a decent start. I thought the internal conflict he experienced made up for it, though I do hope his perspective and beliefs are challenged more in the second book!

    • Hi Stephanie!
      I know right?! Not many people have heard of Exo, and that makes me sad. Might do a thread on it sometime to raise awareness.
      I hope you do! It’s a good book; very exciting and intelligent.

  4. I’m a huge sci-fi fan so this sounds absolutely amazing. :) Thanks for putting it on my radar and, as always, fabulous review! <3

  5. As always, your review is wonderful :D It sounds like such an intelligent and important book. I absolutely love morally grey characters (Adam Silvera’s characters epitomise this for me). However, you’re so right when you point out how often dystopian narratives paint good and bad as black and white. The most recent dystopian book I read was Divergent, and the more I reflect on it, the more annoyed I get about how one-dimensional the discourse is in that plot. Thanks for going into depth about this topic. Love you!

    • Hi Paige!
      Ooooh I would absolutely love if you read this because I’d LOVE to hear your thoughts on this book. I know some people didn’t like it because some of the characters were a little flat and erred on the trope side, but I felt like it was outweighed by the discourse.

      Ah goodness. I was not a fan of Divergent at all! I think I wrote a scathing review for it too, haha!

      Love you lots and miss youuuu. <3

  6. I have to read this soon! This sounds so incredible. Colonization and oppression are topics that I am very sensitive about especially since it has barely been half a century since my country’s independence. I belong to a generation whose parents were children during the war and whose grandparents were young adults or adults who has witnessed the war and survived to tell. And although there are so many YA and even adult dystopias out there I don’t think I have yet read any where it’s nearly impossible ro distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys.

    • Hi Tanaz! I totally understand how this could be a sensitive topic for you and I totally respect that. 💛 It’s a great book indeed, but some parts may be upsetting *nudges at the trigger warnings* so if you read it, please take care. Or, if you do read it you’re more welcome to msg me and we can talk through it. 💛💛

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