Cross Fire (2018), which is a finalist for the Locus Award for Best Young Adult Novel this year, is the second book in Fonda Lee’s EXO series. You need to read the first book, Exo, before picking up Cross Fire. Please note that this review of Cross Fire may spoil some of the plot for Exo.
When we left Donovan Reyes in Exo, he had been devastated by some severe losses but his loyalty to SecPac was recovering, thanks to personal pain inflicted by the terrorists/freedom fighters and thanks to the kind attention of his SecPac friends, especially his best friend, Jet.
The terrorists haven’t stopped trying to convince Earth to turn against its mostly benevolent alien masters (the Zhree) and their techniques are as brutal as ever. But then another group of aliens shows up on the radar and it becomes clear that they are much more of a threat to humanity than the Zhree are. When the Zhree decide to abandon Earth because it has become too costly and difficult to control, the people of Earth are left defenseless. They must make some desperate choices. Alliances shift and individuals wrestle with their consciences as they make decisions that could quicken or prevent the end of the world.
Cross Fire is a solid sequel to Exo and maintains the exciting pace, twisty plot, and ethical quandaries. Characterization remains sketchy for most of the cast other than Donovan, but this is acceptable for a thriller of this nature.
What Cross Fire, like Exo, does best is to force the reader to view highly emotional and political events from multiple perspectives. Much psychological and neuroscience research shows us that we tend to sort ourselves into “us” and “them” categories, that we assign good qualities to those in our in-groups and bad qualities to those in our out-groups, and that the area of our brain that processes information about fear is active when we view people from out-groups. It is difficult to overcome these prejudices because there are evolutionary reasons that we do this — it’s for safety and cognitive efficiency. But research also shows that reading fiction can help us to humanize and empathize with people who are not like us, and Fonda Lee’s EXO series is the type of literature that does this well. In these days of nationalism, tribalism, and stark political polarization, EXO is a good thought-provoking read for the young adults who will someday be our leaders.
MacLeod Andrews gives a wonderful performance in Scholastic’s audiobook versions of the EXO series.