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 . . .
Several generations after being overtaken by a vastly different and technologically superior alien race called the zhree, humanity is divided on their perception of the occupation. Those who’ve strived for a peaceful and mutually beneficent co-existence live close to the zhree and enjoy their technological benefits. Those who’ve proven problematic or of no particular use live in early 21st century conditions. And those who openly continue to resist have formed an underground terrorist network called “Sapience.”
“In a war, you wield every weapon you have, including words. Especially words."
The story is told in third-person past-tense, entirely from the viewpoint of Donovan Reyes, the 17-year-old son of the Prime Liaison (essentially the most influential human on Earth, given his rapport with the zhree.) Donovan is also an Exo—physiologically augmented at a young age with alien technology that provides him with a reflexive armor skin. Ever striving to please his distant, unpleasable father, he works as a somewhat gung-ho officer for the Global Security and Pacification Forces (SecPac.) Donovan’s eagerness to prove himself lands him in tremendous danger when he is captured by Sapience and held for collateral. But the terrorists are a bit more complicated than the mindless hate group they appear to be… and to some of them, Donovan may prove to be more inconveniently human than they would prefer to believe.
Fonda Lee’s fresh voice for the futuristic comes through with unique strength and solid worldbuilding. This book bears some execution similarity to her debut stand-alone, Zeroboxer, in that it is told from the lone POV of a young, standout male. But from there it diverges tremendously. Having read her first book, this reader found EXO more notably memorable and compelling. A large part of this is owed to the complexity of the issues being covered, and the author’s multi-dimensional handling of them: parental neglect/abandonment; politics; nebulous ethics; prejudice; hatred; propaganda; group loyalty; fear-mongering; sentience; terrorism, supremacy, and extremist mindsets… all received different angles of examination, and little by way of black-and-white conclusions. There are no easy answers.
The Trope Twist
Speaking of “no easy answers,” extra kudos for premise originality.
The aliens featured in this book aren’t genocidal, resource-greedy, or evil—but they are ALIEN in nearly every sense of the word. Lee does a remarkable job of making theirs a flawed-yet-sympathetic race. The zhree are at a severe relatability disadvantage--having no reference for understanding humanity’s drive for “freedom” from perceived oppression, and no comprehension of their familial units (as they are egg-laying hermaphrodites.) The cultural and technological differences between their civilization and humanity is immense, and much of the tragedy of their initial arrival is owed to misunderstandings and miscommunication on both sides. In the eyes of the zhree, they are benevolent overseers. By their logic, Earth needed to be made into an outlying colony to protect it from the very real threat of their enemies, the Rii—who DO operate on a planet-raping genocidal level.
In some ways, this book almost feels like two different works welded together. The first half of the book moves along at a steady, rapid clip—fraught with compelling character exploration and tense plot development. There is a fascinating element of Stockholm syndrome, as well as its opposite (which, this reader discovered through research inspired by this book, is referred to as Lima syndrome.) But at the halfway point, the paradigm shifts—and with it the pacing and drive of the story. Some readers may find it more of an effort to get through the second portion. Those reading for the romantic angle may ultimately be disappointed with the way that thread resolves—however open-ended. (This reader could have done without it altogether. There just wasn’t enough substance for me to feel invested in Donovan’s love interest.)
Overall, this is a rare kind of read—one that begs difficult questions and opens up potential talking points on a myriad of speculative (and not-so speculative) topics.
They mark humans who have been taken into their society as being in-enze or in the group/family. Donovan is one such human, who is a soldier-in-enze, which means he belongs with a group of other humans and Zhree where he acts mostly as a police force but is called for anything unsettling. Donovan is also Hardened, which means he has been given a exocel (Exo for short) or an upgrade which provides him with armor and defense/weapons that seamlessly integrates with his mind. He is also the son of the Prime Liaison, who theoretically holds the highest position because he interfaces directly with the Zhree (versus the President who only controls humans/has less power).
Donovan doesn't question his life or his role- until one night while on patrol, he and his partner perform a search for sape intel and find more than they bargained for. The Sapience is the human rebellion who wants to expel the Zhree from Earth and rule the planet without them- they are viewed as terrorists and frequently bomb and kill humans in their quest. This is not to mention that they also execute exos at will, because they are seen as being pets of the Zhree and no longer human. On this raid, Donovan and his partner come under fire and Donovan is captured- once they find out who he is, they decide to use him as a bargaining chip rather than kill him outright.
During his capture, Donovan learns that the sides may be more nuanced than he thought and that there are some areas of gray. What is really unique about this book is that there is a lot of gray and both sides are presented in ways that make sense. It really shows a much more three-dimensional struggle around colonization and suppression that you don't often see in YA books. The Zhree aren't necessarily evil and they do treat humans well- but the humans aren't really free. So what do you do?
The questions and thoughts raised by this book are infinitely engaging- as is the fast-paced and adventurous plot. We really get to see both sides presented and dissected by Donovan as he is pulled in both directions. I am really interested to see how this series evolves and whether these big questions are answered or continue to spark a lot of discussion/debate. Overall, I think it was really fantastically done and a truly unique book- you'll definitely want to check this series out if you enjoy YA sci-fi! Please note that I received a copy through a giveaway. All opinions are my own.