In Review: Exo

An interesting premise that's a laborious read.

Exo by Fonda Lee

Published by Scholastic on January 31. 2017. Jacketed hardcover of 372 pages at $17.99. Intended for readers 12 and up, grades 7 and up. Also available as an ebook.

Note: I read an advanced copy so anything may have changed by publication.

The cover: A stylized orange, yellow, and brown cover made up of tiny hexagons with the words Exo in highly stylized font comprises the majority of this cover. The top of the book states “Earth Isn’t Ours Anymore” and author Fonda Lee’s name is at the bottom. This design gives the book a futuristic feel before it’s ever opened. The jacket art and design are by Phil Falco. It’s effective, but if one of the exo humans had been shown that might have been a greater draw to have boys pick the book up. Overall grade: B+

The premise: From the inside front cover, “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 their rule on Earth, but Donovan Reyes isn’t one of them. His day holds the prestigious government position of Prime Liaison, and Donovan’s high school 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 is 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 last time.” I’m glad I didn’t read this until after I had read the book, because Donovan’s capture was a surprise for me, though it does happen early on in the book. However, his capture doesn’t comprise the majority of the book, so there are other surprises. This summary does overstate his importance to Earth’s future, but it should give potential readers enough of a tease of what’s to come. Overall grade: B

The characters: Donovan Reyes is an eighteen year old who was attached to his exo at the age of five. Exo is alien technology that’s bonded to his skin allowing him to create armor for defense or offensive situations. It’s almost like Terminator 1000 abilities, though a bullet can kill him if it’s a head shot and his armor can be damaged beyond repair. When he’s captured by Sapience, he naturally tows the line for what he’s been brought up believing, that Earth is better under the rule of the zhee. However, there’s a girl who begins to change his mindset. As the novel progresses, other events have him unsure of what to believe. And that’s the biggest problem with Donovan — he can’t make up his mind. There’s so much time, and several pages, devoted to him weighing what he’s learned, I often he wished he’d just make up his mind to get the story moving again. There’s also a lot of yelling at other characters. Given the information he’s confronted with, it’s understandable that his character would be upset, but there’s so much yelling, and crying, I was surprised he wasn’t hoarse by the end of the book. The girl that changes his opinion is Anya. She’s a sympathetic character, and she also begins to change her position on several things due to Donovan. They make a good couple and I was impressed that Lee didn’t feel the need to have the two constantly together, though the influence of each upon the other remained constant. Dominick Reyes is Donovan’s father and from the outset the reader will know that he hasn’t told Donovan everything. Is he evil or bad? Not necessarily. From his point of view, he’s saving the planet. As a father, though, he leaves much to be desired. The real antagonist of the story is Kevin, a Sapience cell leader who’s unhinged from the get-go and makes no qualms about using torture to get what he needs. Jet is Donovan’s partner, they were both hardened (received their exo) at the same time. He’s a by the numbers loyal best friend, with his dating life being the only aspect of his character not focused on the job. The zhree are an interesting alien race. More is learned about them as the book progresses, but their shape is absolutely alien and their attitude towards humans, even those that are loyal, is very dismissive. From the outset, their “assistance” to Earth is questionable. With the exception of Donovan, his father, and Anya, the characters of this novel remain as they are when they’re first introduced and don’t grow. This would be fine, since they’re secondary characters, but Donovan’s constant indecision and self reflection made this book difficult to continue reading. Overall grade: C+

The settings: Earth after an alien invasion from one hundred years earlier is well done. Those humans that are loyal to the zhree live in better neighborhoods, closer to the giant termite-like dwellings of the aliens. The interiors of these buildings are futuristic, but not over-the-top. Those that don’t live in crumbling squalor. Sapience cells exist in caves in the mountains, living off what they can steal.  All of the locations are described well and are created easily in the reader’s mind. Overall grade: A

The action: For a book focused on a character wearing a power suit bonded to his skin, he doesn’t use it very often. Outside of the opening and the taking of a Sapience setting, there are no major uses of Donovan’s suit. This felt like the rug was pulled out from me, for if the suit’s there it should be used. This is like saying a character has a gun, but doesn’t use it, he or she only talks about having it. Instead Lee builds tension when Donovan is first captured by placing his life in constant jeopardy from crazy Kevin. Later tension is built by his father’s words and actions and the revelation of a threat to the zhree. That last conflict held some promise of action, but it occurred nowhere near Donovan and is left unresolved by the end. Things built, but there was never enough delivery. Overall grade: C-

The conclusion: This was incredibly anti-climatic. I was stunned by what the final conflict of the book was and how it ended. The two page epilogue felt like a slap in the face after reading the ending. Overall grade: D 

The final line: An interesting premise that’s a laborious read. It was difficult to continue reading because as something new was introduced the main character became introspective and the action was elsewhere. The door is left wide open for the continuation of Donovan’s story, but it’s got to have more confident and decisive characters and much, much more action. Overall grade: C

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Patrick Hayes was a contributor to the Comic Buyer's Guide for several years with "It's Bound to Happen!" and he's reviewed comics for TrekWeb and TrekCore. He's taught 8th graders English for 20 years and has taught high school English for five years and counting. He reads everything as often as he can, when not grading papers or looking up Star Trek, Star Wars, or Indiana Jones items online.
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