Earth's century of peace as a colony of an alien race has been shattered. As the alien-run government navigates peace talks with the human terrorist group Sapience, Donovan tries to put his life back together and return to his duty as a member of the security forces. But a new order comes from the alien home planet: withdraw. Earth has proven too costly and unstable to maintain as a colony, so the aliens, along with a small selection of humans, begin to make plans to leave. As word of the withdrawal spreads through the galaxy, suddenly Earth becomes vulnerable to a takeover from other aliens races. Aliens who do not seek to live in harmony with humans, but will ravage and destroy the planet. As a galactic invasion threatens, Donovan realizes that Sapience holds the key that could stop the impending war. Yet in order to save humankind, all species on Earth will have to work together, and Donovan might just have to make the ultimate sacrifice to convince them.
Once again, the story is told in third-person past tense—entirely from the viewpoint of young soldier Donovan Reyes. Donovan is still mentally recovering from his time in captivity, and the loss of both parents to opposing ends of the conflict over the alien colonization of Earth. His instilled-since-childhood loyalty to SecPac and the Zhree is evolving—as is his perspective on Sapience, the recently fragmented extremist group his sort-of-girlfriend belongs to.
The human resistance (Sapience) is seemingly getting what they’ve always wanted. Thanks in part to the terror attacks and opposition they’ve been met with in recent years, the Zhree homeworld has decided that Earth isn’t worth developing or protecting any longer. They’ve ordered an evacuation of their entire species. And they’ve decided a small percentage of their human collaborators will evacuate with them, to preserve the human species in some form once the planet inevitably falls to the scavenging Rii.
But many Zhree were hatched on Earth and know no other home. For those carrying eggs, the trip back to their technical homeworld would endanger or doom their brood. And all would look forward to being dismissed and discriminated against as “offworlders.” As for the humans, the consequences are even more bleak. The evacuation of human Exos demands that most leave some or all of their families behind to face certain death—either at the hands of a vengeful Sapience anarchy, or eventually, to the whims of the genocidal Rii.
Oh, the sociological and political nuances!
There are still no easy answers to any of the moral conundrums we encountered in Exo, and I love it for that alone. But in Crossfire we do see that the prioritizing of survival demands a mighty shift in the power dynamic. The interpersonal aspects are truly honed in this installment. The closer relationships between the SecPac soldiers and some of their Zhree comrades illustrates the interrelational conundrums in their uneven governing structure. The tensions between homeworld Zhree and Earth colonist Zhree highlights a vast cultural and political complexity within the alien species itself. And the empathy-building connection between Donovan and Anya is used expertly to show both “sides” (or more accurately, the grey-area gradations) to the underlying issue of colonialism.
The ethical quandaries abound. Is propaganda a means justified by its ends? Is access to tech advancement a privilege or a right? If you could guarantee your children a better life and doubled lifespan with the 1% chance of mortality up-front, is it worth the risk? Can there ever be true equality between fundamentally different species? What, exactly, constitutes “freedom?”
One thing is certain—this series isn’t done asking hard questions that may never have clear-cut answers. Which should leave many a reader pondering the story long after they’ve reached “the end.”
Again, we see the romantic angle is more of a side-note amid the much bigger picture. But in this book, said angle felt more natural and enhancing than it did in Exo. There is now the sense that these star-crossed almost-lovers could actually be a catalyst to some desperately needed unity. If they can restrain their biases long enough to find some common ground to stand on…
Superb worldbuilding, solid character development, lucid descriptions, and high action balanced by compelling introspection. It’s rare to find a series in which the second book actually surpasses the first… but here, Fonda Lee has done just that.
Of course, not all humans are happy to have the zhree on their planet, and the main resistance is Sapience, which has now splintered into the Human Action Party, a political group working to promote humans, and True Sapience, a more violent/extreme extension of terrorists. Most of Sapience's former activities were terrorist in nature with bombing buildings, assassinating leaders, and killing Exos they find. Exos are seen as the enemies and "pets" of the zhree (also called shrooms). However, they are independent people who work in harmony for the most part.
Donovan is a soldier-in-erze, who lost both of his parents in the first book. He has been called upon by the zhree to participate in their discussions to decide who will follow his father as the Prime Liaison, and this has given him unwanted political capital. Add to that, the girl he loves is in Sapience, and Donovan is carrying a lot of weight. Everything is about to change when the Mur decide to evacuate Earth and take some of the healthy, young, hardened Exos with them. Lines are drawn and violence and tension on Earth escalate.
Donovan has some tough decisions to make as the sides are blurred and what is best for humans and Earth becomes even murkier. This sequel is even more action-packed than the first and gives more insight into the aliens and world created here. I really liked the additional background and world building in this book, but it does get pretty slow in the middle. However, I liked how well everything was wrapped up and how things are changing on Earth.
This series has some interesting insights into colonization and immigration that I think are really worth talking about- there's no clear right and wrong here, and how it's handled is really fascinating. This is something you don't often see in a YA series. I really enjoyed this conclusion to the duology and highly recommend it for YA readers of all ages!