This review is based on an ARC of the book, given to me for free by the publisher. This does not in any way affect my review.
I love a good popcorn movie as much as the next person. I’m not one of those people who insists that every film must be some extremely deep example of High Art in Motion – I mean, I do enjoy a good piece of more contemplative cinema every now and again, but I’m also pretty happy to watch something with plenty of guns, explosions, and people doing gravity-defying things with their bodies.
However, I admit that I’m kind of picky when it comes to the action flicks I like to watch. First of all, I’m always on the lookout for a cast that prominently features women in roles where they actually kick butt and take names. I don’t expect them to be Good Guys all the time, since I’m more than happy to see a female antagonist take the stage, but they have to portray strong characters, no matter which side of the moral divide they fall into. Second, I look for a cast that prominently features persons of colour; I’m not picky, as long as they aren’t white. And finally, I want the film to have some kind of solid thematic heart. It doesn’t have to be overly complicated, but I do want to watch a movie that’s got a bit more to it than just explosions and people dying in a hail of bullets.
Unfortunately, the above is absolutely not what most summer blockbusters are. Most of the time, the female characters are sidelined; the cast is mostly white; and the themes are practically non-existent. Off the top of my head I can only think of two movies that fits the above criteria, and those are Pacific Rim and the latest Ghostbusters. Fortunately, I don’t have to rely solely on movies for that kind of storytelling, especially when there are writers like Wesley Chu creating stories like his latest work, The Rise of Io.
The Rise of Io follows Ella Patel, a con artist and thief who lives and works in Crate Town, a slum in Gujarat, India. She thinks her life’s pretty good, all things considered – until one night, when she tries to safe a woman and a man from being killed by a group of thugs. The woman dies, and Ella finds herself sharing her body with Io, who is a Quasing: one of a group of aliens who must live in the bodies of human hosts, and whose influence has helped direct the course of human history from the very beginning.
As Io’s new host, Ella finds herself reluctantly drawn into a fight she wants no part of – but she has no choice. Io is a member of the Prophus, the Prophus are at war with another group called the Genjix, and the Genjix are trying to track Io down. It’s up to Ella to keep herself alive, using all her street smarts and instincts to make sure she comes out of all of this in one piece, preferably with a small fortune in the bargain.
This is the first book of Chu’s that I’ve read, and I can say, right now, that Chu should also try writing Hollywood screenplays because wow, this book is the perfect example of my ideal Hollywood summer blockbuster. There’s chase scenes, fight scenes, explosion scenes – and all done in a way that’s just sheer pleasure to read. I have a deep appreciation for a well-choreographed fight scene, and the ones in this book are quite well done; I didn’t get the urge to skim through any of the fight scenes because Chu just writes them that well. There are also some flashbacks, and even a training montage! Take all the best bits of the best summer blockbusters currently available, and most of them will appear in this book.
However, what makes this book different from a lot of the summer blockbusters currently out there (including Marvel movies) is that this book prominently features women in both the protagonist and antagonist roles – and even better, one of them is a woman of colour. Chu also puts in a lot of time towards developing both characters: it’s easy to feel sympathetic towards Ella because she’s the protagonist, but it can be harder to do that with her opposite number in this story. And yet, in his characterisation of Shura, the novel’s antagonist, Chu paints her as being just as sympathetic as Ella. She might not be on the same side of the ideological divide as Ella, but it’s still easy to feel for her as a person. As someone who is heartily sick and tired of flat, one-dimensional villains, I am so very glad that Chu wrote Shura the way he did. I might not agree with her, but I can say that I like her – and that’s not something I can say very often about a lot of antagonists, whether on screen or on the page.
Another thing that really makes this book is the way Chu incorporates and handles particular themes. Corruption, poverty, and the devastating effects of war on noncombatants are some of the themes that form the backbone of this story, but they’re handled in such a way that they don’t slow the story down at all. They tend to come up in the way a character thinks about another character, or the way they approach a situation. A great example of this is how Ella and Shura view Crate Town: the former sees it as home, as a community, while the latter sees it as an obstacle, something to get out of the way. These differing viewpoints not only enhance Ell and Shura’s characterisation, but the sharp reader can also read them as commentary on the way the rich and powerful view places like slums: seeing them as eyesores, rather than as lively and vibrant (if dangerous) communities. It’s a small thing, sure, but it’s something I find vitally important. Some books, like some movies, are meant primarily to entertain, but that doesn’t mean they can’t talk about some of the hard truths of the real world while providing that entertainment.
Overall, The Rise of Io is comparable to some of the best summer blockbusters currently out there, but better, because it puts awesome women in the lead roles; has a nicely diverse cast; and tells a story that’s not only a thrill-a-minute, but focuses on some of the ugly truths about the world that need a bit more focus put on them, if only because they need to be fixed to make the world a better place. Even better, it all comes wrapped in a fun, sci-fi near-future thriller package, with a plot that slows down a bit in some places, but doesn’t ever stop being fun. If the reader is hankering for a Black Widow movie, but with a healthy helping of representation of the kind we’re unlikely to get from anything coming out of Hollywood right now, then this five-star book is going to scratch that itch.
Update: It looks like my wish might come true after all! In this tweet, Wesley Chu hints that this book might be on its way to becoming a movie sometime in the future. Let’s hope they get the casting right, though I have a few ideas about that…
Update the second: All right, so it’s not this book that’s getting turned into a movie, but one of the prequels, The Lives of Tao, is – or at least, it’ll be turned into a TV series, which is just as great. It’s been optioned by ABC Studios and production will be helmed by Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas, the same awesome folk behind Agent Carter. You can get the full scoop in this article from Tor.com.
The Rise of Io is available on Amazon in a variety of formats; click on the title to find them all.