Would I rather read a problematic yet intellectually stimulating book, or one that's as bland and unappetizing as plain gelatin? Each has its advantages and disadvantages: Gelatin Book won't make me apopleptic or threaten violence against the book by making to throw it against the wall. However, at least problematic books give me something to think about.
I've been trying to read Exo by Fonda Lee for several days now, and every time I open the book, it seems as though I'm reading in reverse. That's how slow this one is. I asked myself, "Would I rather read Ender's Game, which is sexist and whose author is ... shall we say, divisive?" Alas, my answer was yes, I would much rather read Ender's Game, because at least it was interesting and I have a soft spot for boot camp-style novels, no matter how trite they are. See also: Starship Troopers by Heinlein and Armor by Stakely. Unfortunately, Exo squanders the opportunity to run with an awesome alien invasion premise and biomechanical nano-armor and falls over its own clumsy attempts to have a plot. I'm also disappointed at the lack of human diversity made either explicit or implicit in the narrative.
If you've read any of my SF reviews, you know I love a good alien invasion story. They're right up there with natural disasters and doomsday scenarios (and their backwater cousins, the MUTANT ANIMALS OF DOOM! attack stories). Exo has a a relatively different setting from most of its YA compatriots in that it takes place years after the aliens have established Earth as a colony. Humanity--as a whole--no longer resists their alien overloads. Wartime cost both sides a great deal, and after long years of fighting, peace as vassals was more palatable than endless fighting to the point of extermination.
The invading aliens, called the zhree, supposedly came to Earth to protect it from Evil Nomadic Zhree Renegades. A benevolent dictatorship is anything but, and humanity fought back with a ferocity that surprised the zhree.
The war lasted longer than either side expected, and when humanity was exhausted of troops and matériel, they surrendered. Not everyone believed that was the right choice; some rebel groups continue guerilla warfare against the zhree and the humans who accept their rule.
Apart from subjugation, these humans strongly object to the modification of human children using zhree nanotechnology. Zhree have physical bodies that are weak, so they developed nanoparticulate armor that was also bionic--integrated into their bodies. They can armor-up with a thought. Human children are selected to go through this Hardening process as well, becoming super soldiers. But are they still human afterward?
That is the chink in the armor that a rebel group called Sapiencees wish to exploit. A propagandist has been writing grandiose and overstuffed prose condemning the evil Exos and the humans that are in erze to the zhree. (Yes, that's how the novel is written, and it's highly confusing--but more on that later). Donovan Reyes is a soldier-in-erze and an exo. He's also the only son of the Prime Liason, who's basically a big cheese collaborator with the zhree. So when a raid goes very wrong and a tiny, malnourished girl manages to get the drop on super-soldier Donovan (what???), the sadistic rebel Kevin and his sidekick Brett take him as a hostage to the Sapience stronghold deep within the Black Hills. There, Donovan learns that the propaganda writer is actually his runaway mother, and he predictably falls in love with Anya, the girl who captured him.
I got 130 pages into the book and nothing was happening. I could not struggle through 200+ more pages of strugglebus romance and didactic musings about What It Means To Be Human. I'm getting sleepy and bored just writing this review.
Donovan has zero personality. He's a giant spoonful of vanilla pudding--unsatisfying and bland and kind of jiggly. Since I originally became aware of the author via the We Need Diverse Books organization, I expected Exo to highlight diversity. It's hinted that Donovan and his dad are vaguely Latinx (Reyes?) but I'm not sure what anyone looks like other than Anya, with her super special manic pixie dream girl red hair. For a relatively rare genetic variant, redheads sure are in abundant supply when it comes to future rebellions. I don't even know what else to talk about in the book because somehow nothing really happened in 130 pages except for Donovan's mom pulling a Darth Vader on him. Also, whenever I think of Kevin the villain, I think of the minion Kevin.
Often, the barest of plots can skate by if you have either a charming and witty narrative voice or solidly intriguing wordlbuilding (having both is even better). Alas, Exo's world of alien domination is as lackluster as its leading man. Lee throws around alien jargon left and right in what I assume is supposed to be an immersive experience, but what is actually a muddled mess of fake words. Several chapters in, we finally find out what it means to be "in erze." Just because of the preposition, my brain kept substituting the word "heat" for "erze" and I was very confused abut mating humans and zhree.
Ha ha! No. "Erze" is a familial order, like a clan. Humans under zhree control belong to an erze and receive the corresponding vocation. So if you belong to the warrior erze, then you are a warrior. Nouns follow a higgledy-piggeldy capticalization scheme ("erze," for example, is not capitalized, but "Soldier" or "Nurse" is. After trudging through so many chapters of Donovan whining about how he IS human, thank you very much, but also part of the great zhree civilization, I asked myself, "Why should I care?"
I found no reason to care about any of this, so I simply walked away. Do not be fooled: a book should not gain accolades because aliens or because dystopia or for any other reason that book pundits like to squee over a new title. Exo is spectacular in only one way, and that's in its dullness.
For the love of all that is good, skip this. Even if you are jonesing for a teen sci-fi book, you can pretty much pick anything else and it will be better than Exo.
I received an ARC of this title from the publisher.