The summer blockbuster: the film generally anticipated by a majority of the movie-viewing public, and equally generally despised by film critics. For my part, I enjoy a good summer blockbuster, but I have certain criteria for what counts as a good summer blockbuster: not as stringent as those of a film critic, for certain, but still important enough to me that their presence (or absence) can decide whether or not I see a particular film in the theatre. For example: a diverse cast is always going to be interesting to me, particularly if it highlights women of colour by casting them in excellent roles. If the movie also happens to be from a franchise I enjoy, and/or based on a book I enjoy, and/or in the science fiction or fantasy genres, then I am almost definitely onboard and willing to spend both money and time on it.
Unfortunately, a great many summer blockbusters do not meet those criteria – and, worse, many summer blockbusters might not meet those criteria for a very long time, if the whitewashing of key Asian characters in the upcoming Doctor Strange movie and in the live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell is anything to go by. This is unfortunate, not least because a great many movies that go on to become big hits are actually adapted from other media – books, in particular. However, it is becoming quite clear that, even in adaptations, Hollywood will insist on casting a white person for a character, even if, in the original material, the character is actually a person of colour.
When I first encountered The Rise of Io in a list of upcoming genre releases for October, I was curious. I have Wesley Chu’s Time Salvager and Time Siege in my TBR, but I hadn’t read either of them yet when I decided to read The Rise of Io. I wasn’t quite ready to commit to a series, but since The Rise of Io looked like a standalone, I supposed that it was as good a choice as any to see what Chu’s writing was like. Thanks to Angry Robot Books, who graciously supplied me with an eARC, I was able to read the book almost a month in advance of its actual release.
The Rise of Io tells the story of Ella Patel, a tough, hardbitten (or so she likes to think) con artist who thinks of herself as the “samrãjñi”, or queen, of Crate Town, the Gujurati slum she calls home. She thinks she’s living a fairly good life, making a living through thievery and small-time cons – until one night, when she tries to save a woman and a man from being killed by a group of five 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 currently engaged in a war with the Genjix, and the Genjix are trying to track Io down. Through all of this, Ella must trust her instincts and whatever help comes her way – no matter where it comes from.
From the blurb alone, I think it is clear to the reader that The Rise of Io is precisely the kind of plot that would make an excellent summer blockbuster, on par with Pacific Rim and a definite cut above any of the Transformer movies. The plot is eminently suitable for cinematic treatment: chock-full of chase scenes and fight scenes, with guns, knives, and explosions galore. There is even room for flashbacks, a training montage, and a little bit of romance on the side, just to round everything out. The dialogue is also clever and snappy, sure to get chuckles out of a moviegoing audience. Take this excerpt, for example:
“… Can’t you just order him to teach me to fight in a way where I don’t mess up my face?”
I am pretty sure that all types of fighting involve getting your face messed up.
“I’m surprised a man of your qualities managed to find a woman to produce an offspring.”
“For every ugly and desperate man, there is an equally ugly and desperate woman. Then there is you.”
As Ella approached him to get into the boxing ring, he leaned in and sniffed. “I smell the gutter.”
She sniffed him back. “I smell death.”
“Just don’t stand in my way,” she said, “or you may end up getting a knife in the back.”
He grinned. “I will trust that your desire to see me alive will keep me safe.”
Oh brother. This guy is too much. He is so cheesy.
“I love cheese.”
Chu’s narrative style supports the action-movie feel of the book, though there are times when it slows down a touch more than I strictly like, leading to a bit of narrative clunkiness. Still, it’s not a terribly egregious issue, and the reader can easily ignore that in favour of the other, more positive aspects of this book.
But what really makes this book stand out is its cast of characters, and the way those characters are treated. Chu takes the time to really build his characters so that the reader can get to know them and understand why they do the things they do and say the things they say. Chu shows how skilled he is at character development within the first two chapters of the book, which are mostly focused on Ella. Some writers develop their characters in long, slow chunks (and others – the bad ones – do not even do any development at all) but Chu does the opposite. Instead of sitting the reader down, as it were, and explaining to him or her just what this character’s all about, Chu lets Ella’s actions speak for her by taking the reader through one of Ella’s heists – all while setting up the first stage of the novel’s main plot.
Now, while this might make sense for the protagonist – who is, after all, the character readers are supposed to sympathise with the most – Chu also takes the time to really build up the primary antagonist of this novel, Shura. While there are quite a few female antagonists in various movies, not all of them are as well fleshed-out, nor as sympathetic, as Shura. This is where I truly appreciate Chu’s character development: I find that I cannot outright dislike Shura just because she is the antagonist. To be sure, I do not necessarily agree with her ideology, nor with the ideology of her faction, but I still like her nonetheless.
Aside from its characters, this book is also notable for the themes that underpin the story. Chu tackles some interesting ones in this novel: corruption, poverty, and the devastating effects of war on noncombatants being just a few of the ones highlighted. However, though he does incorporate these ideas, he does not let them get in the way of the storytelling. They tend to come up in the way a character approaches another character, or the way they handle a particular situation. A good example of this is in how differently Ella and Shura view Crate Town: for the former, it is a home and a community, while for the latter, it is nothing more than an obstacle. These differing viewpoints enhance not only Ella and Shura’s character development, but can also be considered commentary on the way the rich and the powerful tend to view places like slums and other, similar communities. It might seem like a small thing, when viewed against the overall narrative arc, but it is something that is relevant to the real world, where slums are bulldozed on a regular basis to make room for prohibitively expensive private gated communities.
All of that aside, what truly tickles me about this book is that it scratches an itch I have had for a while, but feared would never be satisfied. As I have mentioned earlier, I would love nothing more than to see a summer blockbuster feature a truly diverse cast, while giving women opportunities to shine as well-rounded, interesting characters. Since that does not seem likely to happen on the silver screen, given the way Hollywood is currently run, I have to look for that kind of setup elsewhere, and it is precisely the kind of setup that The Rise of Io provides: two women – one of whom is a woman of colour – pitted against each other in an action-packed story. Sure, there is a little romance, and sure, there are other, male characters (both white and of colour), but neither of those things get in the way of a story that is, at its core, about two amazing women, each with her own, complicated backstory and end-goals, trying to achieve what she wants to achieve before her rival beats her to the finish line.
Overall, The Rise of Io is a thrill-a-minute read comparable to the best summer blockbusters that any studio can produce – probably better, in my opinion, because the cast is more diverse and the focus is on women instead of men, in the best way possible, while also dealing with some important themes. But at the end of the day, this is a fun, sci-fi near-future thriller, and fits that description to perfection. If that is precisely the kind of story the reader is looking for, then he or she need look no farther than this book.