The Rise of Io is the first in a new science-fiction series by Wes Chu. It takes place in the same universe as his rather good ‘Tao’ novels, though in a different locale and with a different cast.
The setting is, broadly, the world after a devastating war. Two alien factions, living amongst humanity for millennia, became visible in society and started a world-spanning conflict. We don’t see that war here, only the aftermath. Societies are still in place, there’s social structures, democracy – it’s not a world broken beyond repair. But in the interactions of those a generation later, the child-survivors of the conflict, in their loss, their pain, and their scars, we can see a little of the broader context. Most of the narrative, though, takes place in a part of Gujarat, India. The city in which the story takes place is teetering on the edge of the demilitarised zone – with echoes of Casablanca in its thronging populace, and in the shifting sands of influence, corruption and power that are associated with it. This is a city of highs and lows – where a pre-eminent politician can live in a confined splendour, and where urchins and street gangs are living their lives inside of shipping containers.
We do spend rather more time in the latter locale – “Crate Town”, as it’s known to the locals. It’s a bustling hive of scum and petty villainy, where anything can be bought, for a price. It’s got an energy about it, and a sense of community, warped as it is, that makes for a strangely charming, if dangerously alive, locale.
From a character standpoint, our main focus is on Ella, a small-time con artist and general youthful troublemaker, and the titular Io, an alien who has survived a long time, typically by keeping their head down – and occasionally making rather impressive mistakes. Ella is feisty, defensive, and has a tendency to speak before she thinks – which has often comedic and occasionally unfortunate results. Her fast talking, take-no-prisoners attitude is refreshing to see on the page. It’s especially intriguing when paired with some wonderfully mercenary instincts and an attitude which keeps an eye out for number one in any situation – though with enough cracks in the façade that she’s not entirely selfish. In any event, Ella talks a good game, and definitely one which is bigger than she can actually back up – but she’s easy to sympathise with, a charming rogue with a bit of a past, and a firm view on seizing the future – with as little risk as possible.
Io, on the other hand, begins the text as the voice of authority; fans of the Tao series will see echoes of Tao here, in a Quasing getting to know their human host. But Io is a more cautious creature, one which has known disappointment, and is determined to get what it feels like it’s owed. Io is perhaps more caustic and demanding, and less people-friendly than other Quasing in the text; it has a delightful focus on standing, and less compunction about manipulation than others, as well. But for all that, there are cracks in Io’s façade too – a sense of guarded friendship between Io and Ella is matched by actions both take on the other’s behalf. Io certainly grows within the text, and watching it dance with Ella, like two cats settling a territory dispute, is delightful .
The plot – well, there’s elements of the spy novel. Ella is living in hostile territory, keeping her head down, slowly acclimatising to being the host for an alien and snapping the odd surveillance photo.
The narrative cranks the tension right up, as Ella is drawn further into a dangerous world, largely unsupported apart from Io – and both are unsure whom to trust, including each other. But there’s a lovely coming-of-age theme here too, as Ella gets a chance to be something other than she is – but fights back, asking why what she is, in fact, is so terrible. The clash of class and expectations is well drawn, the fiery Ella a constant match for the cool and focused Io. There’s enough action in here to keep the pages turning – the author has a gift for putting together fast-paced kinetic fight scenes, which made me want to jump out of my seat.
In the end, this is an excellent novel , based off a core relationship between interesting, well-drawn characters, in a vivid environment. That it has enough chase scenes and hand-to-hand combat to start a movie franchise is just a bonus. If you’re looking for your next sci-fi thriller, then I’d say look no further.