After Dan Simmons named a classic sci-fi novel after the fall of a moon of Saturn, it was inevitable that someone would respond with a sci-fi novel named after the rise of a moon of Jupiter. Let’s ascend into The Rise of Io, by Wesley Chu.
Ella Patel – thief, con-artist and smuggler – is in the wrong place at the wrong time. One night, on the border of a demilitarized zone run by the body-swapping alien invaders, she happens upon a man and woman being chased by a group of assailants. The man freezes, leaving the woman to fight off five attackers at once, before succumbing. As she dies, to both Ella and the man’s surprise, the sparkling light that rises from the woman enters Ella, instead of the man. She soon realizes she’s been inhabited by Io, a low-ranking Quasing who was involved in some of the worst decisions in history. Now Ella must now help the alien presence to complete her mission and investigate a rash of murders in the border states that maintain the frail peace.
With the Prophus assigned to help her seemingly wanting to stab her in the back, and the enemy Genjix hunting her, Ella must also deal with Io’s annoying inferiority complex. To top it all off, Ella thinks the damn alien voice in her head is trying to get her killed. And if you can’t trust the voices in your head, who can you trust?
The Rise of Io presents a complicated and interesting backstory. Long ago, incorporeal aliens crash-landed on Earth and were only able to survive by possessing human bodies. For a long time, they existed in secrecy; but then humanity developed technology allowing them to discover the aliens, resulting in a panic that triggered a massive world war and caused the aliens to divide into two opposing factions. It is a fascinating and unique premise the likes of which I have never seen anywhere else.
Boku janai, boku janai… sorry, what was I talking about?
Oh, right, The Rise of Io. Ella is a small-time thief and con-woman who has never left her slum of Crate Town. Io is an immortal parasitic alien who has shaped human history for thousands of years and is a member of a secret organization trying to stop another faction of aliens from destroying humanity. When Io’s former human host dies, she is forced to relocate into Ella’s body, thus binding them together for life. Talk about an odd couple destined for wacky hijinks! Together, they fight crime!
In all serious, the partnership between Ella and Io is surprisingly well balanced. With Ella being young, uneducated, and in many ways ignorant about the world, it would be easy to make her a clear inferior in the relationship; nothing but a bumbling yokel graced with the vast cosmic wisdom of a vastly more intelligent alien. The book puts them on more even footing, however, by making Io her race’s equivalent of a bumbling screw-up. Her winding path through human history has been one long transcript of disasters and incompetency. Her advice gets Ella into trouble as often as it helps, and it often takes Ella’s quick wits to save the day.
The story alternates between focusing on Ella and Io and checking in on their enemies, represented primarily by ruthless and ambitious operator Shurra the Scalpel. These scenes are quite effective at escalating the tension, by showing the seemingly unstoppable progress of the grand villainous machinations which the heroes must attempt to derail. They even made me view Shurra in a somewhat sympathetic light, as they showed her own struggles with treacherous underlings and glory-stealing superiors. It’s always nice to have a complex and somewhat relatable villain. But the most important aspect of these villain cutaways is to establish that there is a traitor within the heroes’ organization, spying on them and sabotaging their efforts. This sets the groundwork for a well-executed surprise reveal as the mid-story twist.
There were a few minor things that bugged me, like Ella repeatedly refusing the guns offered to her by her allies with the cryptic comment “No guns in Crate Town”. Yes, it’s building up to a dramatic fight scene revelation of the reason for the rule; and yes, re-reading the beginning of the book, it was actually foreshadowed as early as the first chapter. But if you think about it at all logically, the moment Ella saw that all of her allies were armed with guns, she should have spoken up and clearly explained to them the reason why that wasn’t such a good idea – out of a self-interested fear of friendly fire, if nothing else.
Other than that, it was pretty good. It’s strange, though, that this book isn’t listed as part of a series on Goodreads. I mean, the whole millions-of-years-long war between two alien factions shaping the whole of human history seems like the kind of premise that it would take more than one novel to fully explore. But The Rise of Io is simply listed as a standalone: no prequels, no sequels, no companion novels, nothing. Oh well, it wouldn’t be the first novel I’ve read which really feels like it should be part of a larger series that never actually materialized. Let me just do a search on the author’s name to be sure and I’ll close out this review by saying…
Wait, hang on, what’s all this Tao stuff? There’s a character in this book named Tao. Are these set in the same universe? It looks like they are.
So there were actually four whole other books published before this one, which for some reason Goodreads doesn’t consider part of the “series” even though they’re in the same universe?
Final Rating: 4/5