Fonda Lee’s Exo takes place in a distant future, on a dramatically altered Earth that’s been colonized by an alien species, the Zhree. The war that led to the colonization ended a century ago and humanity has adapted, but an organized and volatile group of humans, who call themselves Sapience, still rebels. Standing between the humans and the Zhree is the Prime Liaison, a government ambassador for the human race. Exo’s protagonist is Donovan, a loyal soldier who’s also the Prime Liaison’s teenaged son. Donovan is an exo, that is, a human with a full-body modification called an exocel – flexible, retractable armour that can be deployed on demand.
As an exo, Donovan benefits from the social and financial luxuries of the elite, but most consider him more alien than human. The Zhree consider the exos allies, but still think of them as human, and therefore different. Belonging to neither group completely, Donovan’s only real peers are other exos, and he’s fiercely loyal to his fellow soldiers.
Life isn’t going too badly for Donovan until a mission goes wrong and Sapience takes him captive in the hope that his father will pay ransom. While a captive of Sapience, Donovan gains deep knowledge about their operations and goals, meets an entrancing girl, and finds out what happened to his long-absent mother. All of this deeply unsettles Donovan, who struggles with conflicting allegiances, an identity crisis, and the threat of another, more catastrophic war.
In Exo, Lee achieves what most science fiction novels strive for – a strong alternate world that gives readers the space to examine issues in their own lives. Lee’s focus is on Donovan and traditional YA issues like parental relationships and self-discovery, but she places these elements in the context of an intricately developed world that allows the reader to explore concepts like colonization, otherness, and war.
But Exo isn’t all deep thoughts and teen angst. It’s also a tight, fast-paced thriller that will keep readers turning pages late into the night. This is sci-fi done right.