Author: Andrew DeYoung
Type: Fiction, novel
I read it: February 2018
When writing YA, the key ingredient is having respect for the “adult” in “young adult.” The opening pages of The Exo Project show that the author has his audience clearly in mind and is unafraid to speak at their level. The protagonist, Matthew, lives on a burning and broken planet Earth, and his friends are taking him out for a celebration drink before his time comes to board a spaceship and leave forever. The boy is 17, and I was never in a bar at that age, but in the context of the book it sets a believable and serious opening tone.
While Matthew’s story about leaving Earth as part of a wide-scale, last-ditch mission to search for inhabitable planets is a good premise, the real action starts when the perspective switches to Kiva. This young woman lives on Gle’ah, an alien planet that supports a modest village community formed under a matriarchal social order. Because of her unexpected ability to receive visions from the “ancestors,” Kiva is burdened with the task of being the leader of her village. She is isolated in her role, destined to be a decision-maker but never to have a family of her own.
It’s inevitable that Matthew’s spaceship will land on Kiva’s planet, and that they’ll both bend under the weight of responsibility—a responsibility to family, species, and history itself. The reader expects them to fall for each other as well, and they do.
The lover’s tryst is focused and brief, however, and only one plot point among a larger tapestry. As an adult reader, I found the clash of civilizations more intriguing. Would Kiva’s society be open to the visitors or remain fearfully in defensive mode? Which sides would have weapons and how would they use them? Does the inability to contain disgruntled individuals always spell disaster for well-intentioned arrangements?
The book seems lengthy in hardcover, but by the time the final 100 pages were flying by I was worried there wouldn’t be enough space to get around to all the questions that had popped up like alien plant life. There’s a neat section late in the book that makes bold use of the POV structure to offer an explanation of Kiva’s seemingly supernatural abilities. While for a moment the tactic brushes a bit too close to the Star Wars midi-chlorians, I realized that DeYoung’s attempt at tying off the plot thread is just what I needed by that point in the book. The artistic magic of speculative fiction comes from the author’s ability to not rely on the non-explanation of stock magic.
Overall, the book displayed what I had expected from the author: a balanced dose of character, story, and inventiveness. I’d add one final note about authorial skills, which is that the swearing in the book could not be more perfect. The quantity is modest, making the usage that much more effective, and it feels entirely natural in the course of the dialogue. For a story about beings meeting across the distances of space and culture, the attention to detail is another show of respect toward the reader.