Origin stories are the bane of the superhero genre. Whether gamma radiation or radioactive spider, you’ve probably heard it all before—especially once it comes time for a spinoff or reboot.
In The Rise of Io, the start of a new series in the same world as his funny, phenomenal Tao trilogy, Campbell Award-winner Wesley Chu deftly avoids the pitfall of the redundant origin story, instead inverting the setup to expose the darkest parts of a version of our Earth that, unbeknownst to us, has for millennia been the battlefield in an endless alien civil war. By easing up on the pacing, coloring the world-building in shades of grey, and focusing on espionage over high-octane action (though you’ll encounter plenty of both), Io tells a story all its own while building upon the mythology of its parent series.
Ella Patel is a young conwoman and thief living in a slum in Surat. Orphaned by a world war between the two factions of symbiotic aliens, the peaceful Prophus and the violent Genjix, that has devastated much of the planet, Ella makes her living by stealing and scamming her way around Crate Town, a neighborhood filled with colorful and corrupt characters. A job gone wrong puts her in the path of a woman fleeing from pursuers; when the woman is killed, strange glowing lights enter Ella’s body and introduce themselves as Io, a low-level Quasing of the Prophus faction. Io is untrustworthy (not to mention responsible for several historical blunders), and Ella has no interest in an alien war. Unfortunately, a Genjix plot soon threatens her home, what few friends she has left, and, now that’s she’s stuck with Io, possibly her life.
Chu keeps the alien consciousness-in-unwilling-host setup fresh by flipping the dynamic of previous books: instead of a loser stumbling upon a wise old Yoda who trains him up into a superhero, The Rise of Io follows a hyper-competent human saddled with an untrustworthy loser of an alien. In the first trilogy, the Qaising were nigh-omnipotent beings revealed to have controlled humanity’s destiny from the start. It’s interesting, for once, to see the alien as the stumbling one, and know that the force behind awesome historical figures like Genghis Khan and Alphonse Torquemada has its own set of losers and screw-ups.
While the Tao books reveled in glorious gunplay, Ella never really becomes a combat-heavy hero. She’s intelligent, quick with her knives, and well-equipped to operate in any environment, but her greatest assets are stealth, negotiation, and speed. She often manages to escape conflict through her superior knowledge of people and her surroundings, even safeguarding others through the hive of crime and corruption she calls home. Ella’s unique style of problem solving ups the narrative stakes, and puts her agency front and center; rather than Io’s demands, it’s her decisions that shape the narrative.
This is a wonderful starting point for anyone who wants to jump into the series without reading the earlier books, introducing a delightfully competent new hero. Returning readers will appreciate the serious shake-up to the formula that worked so well for three books. In either case, it’s a proper way to add stakes to a setting where it looked like everything was more or less settled. Wesley Chu manages to outdo himself here, and his universe is much better for it.