The Rise of Io, Wesley Chu (Angry Robot 978-0857665812, £8.99, 424pp, tp) October 2016.
Wesley Chu is racking up quite a track record. With 2015’s John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer behind him, and a television option on his first novel, The Lives of Tao, as well as a film option on his Time Salvager – one with Michael Bay’s name attached – it looks as though Chu’s enjoying a very successful run. So what about The Rise of Io? Critical success, ambitious failure, somewhere in the middle of the road?
The Rise of Io is the first novel by Chu that I’ve read, so I can’t relate this book to his body of work. That’s a shame, because – as I didn’t realise until some time after I’d started reading the novel – The Rise of Io is in fact set in the same universe as Chu’s Tao trilogy. It follows a (mostly) separate set of characters, but I’m given to understand that, in terms of the timeline, it’s pretty much a direct sequel.
Context aside, taken on its own merits, The Rise of Io is a messy, scrappy, and yet incredibly fun science fiction thriller with extra body-snatching (more like body-sharing) aliens.
Earth has suffered the ravages of a war between rival alien factions. In its aftermath, Ella Patel is an adolescent thief, sometime smuggler, sometime con-artist, living and working in a former refugee camp-turned-slum. When a job goes awry, Ella is in the right – or exactly the wrong – place at the right time to see a man and a woman pursued by their enemies. The man panics, and the woman is left to take on five attackers herself, with fatal results. When she dies, it transpires that she was the host for a near-immortal alien intelligence, one of those aliens of the faction calling themselves the Quasing. This alien, Io, enters Ella instead of her previous host’s male companion – though Ella doesn’t know at first what’s happened.
Io can’t control her hosts. At least, not when they’re conscious, and Ella has decided ideas about the inconvenience of an alien operative defining the course of her life. But Io was on a mission, and members of the other faction of aliens – the Genjix – are interested in Io and her mission, and now in Ella.
Unfortunately for Ella, Io has a track record of making really bad decisions. Those decisions are going to cause Ella no end of inconvenience – especially since there’s no way, short of dying, for Ella to get rid of her new alien partner.
The Rise of Io has three main characters: Ella, Io, and a Genjix host/operative called Shura. Shura is ruthless, ambitious, and a little hot-headed, with a talent for assassination and the most brutal sort of politics, and right now she’s looking to restore her family’s previous position in the Genjix hierarchy. It would be easy for an author to depict her as the caricature of a ruthless woman – the stereotype is sufficiently familiar that I’m always surprised when a writer, particularly a male writer, doesn’t fall into that trap – but Chu draws Shura as a complex, human (despite her alien partner) and even occasionally somewhat sympathetic antagonist.
Io is a little less well-rounded, and indeed a little less alien than one might have hoped. However, it’s possible that she comes across as less well-rounded because she’s a decidedly unpleasant sort of person, by turns self-aggrandising and self-pitying, and inclined to carp. I find myself with very little sympathy for her, and suspect this is entirely Chu’s design, since Ella, on the other hand, is a remarkably fun character. Brash, stubborn, resolutely low-class, lonely, determined, and not nearly as hard-hearted and mercenary as she’d like to present herself, the intrusion of alien machinations into her personal life is the very last thing she ever expected or wanted.
The novel is paced somewhat awkwardly: for the most part Chu has a thriller writer’s attention to tension and rapid progress, but there are points at which the narrative falls off into a lull, or where there is a little too much going on at once. This detracts from the overall effect. While Chu does have a touch for a telling turn of phrase, the prose is more often closer to competence than to elegance.
That said, this is a minor complaint: taken as a whole, The Rise of Io is a fast, fun romp, with high stakes and plenty of explosions. Definitely a pleasantly diverting read.