Genre: Adult Science Fiction
Publisher: Angry Robot
Release date: April 30 2013
Source: ARC from publisher
In a word: an ingenious concept, flawed but likable characters, exciting action sequences, with an emotional payoff at the end.
This whole alien-in-his-body was starting to sound better and better. First, he got to hang out with a hot girl, and now he was going to be James Bond. He would have to go shopping for a new wardrobe to fit his new role. Roen imagined a long trench coat like Neo with cool sunglasses and a big gun hanging at his waist.
The premise of The Lives of Tao is startlingly simple: what if every artistic, brilliant and charismatic game-changer throughout history was controlled by an alien life force inhabiting their body and directing their actions and decisions? This is the impetus behind Wesley Chu’s debut, and it makes for a very interesting and lively story. Imagine an intelligent race of aliens traveling through space, who crash landed on a developing planet millions of years ago. With no way to get back to their own planet, they must figure out how to survive, and so they inhabit the bodies of living creatures—fish, dinosaurs, mammals, and eventually humans—jumping from body to body when necessary, and trying to advance human technology so that they can eventual go home. These aliens, called Quasings, have split into two groups: the Prophus, who want a peaceful existence with humans, and the Genjix, who are driven by their lust for war and conflict. This story had everything I love in a book: great pacing, characters who are conflicted and have lots of growing to do, and all sorts of layers that add unexpected emotional depth.
The story begins right in the middle of the action, as our hero Tao, a Prophus currently in the host body of a man named Edward Blair, is trying to escape from the Genjix who is after him, but has just discovered he’s been double-crossed by a fellow Prophus. Edward knows the only way to save Tao is to “release” him by killing himself, allowing Tao to find a new host and continue his work. Not a great situation to be in, but Edward’s been Tao’s host for years and knows the drill. By the end of the first chapter (which by the way, was one of the best first chapters I’ve ever read), Tao is floating around without a host, with only minutes left to find someone new to call home. Enter Roen Tan, an over-weight computer geek with low self-esteem, whose life is about to change forever. Because Tao has just chosen Roen as his new host, and boy does he have a lot of work to do! When Roen wakes up the next morning and hears Tao speaking in his head, he has no idea what he’s in for.
So begins the strange and dangerous journey of Tao and Roen, as they try to avoid capture by the Genjix. Roen is the perfect anti-hero, which makes this situation so funny. After convincing him that he has no choice but to act as a host for an alien being, Tao must not only get him in shape, but teach him how to fight, use weapons, and eventually kill in order to stay alive. One of the funniest parts of this book was the ongoing dialog between Roen and Tao. As Tao gives Roen pep talks about how to eat right and lose weight, he also begins to tell him stories about his past lives, and some of the famous (and infamous) people he’s influenced. That’s one of the layers I was talking about. Not only is this a rip-roaring story about spies and infiltrating enemy secrets, but it’s a history lesson as well.
Soon Roen meets Sonya, a human host for a Prophus named Baji. Sonya is sent to help train Roen and get him ready to go on assignments. I expected there might be a romance between the two, but instead Roen meets a woman named Jill who knows nothing about the Quasing, and he begins to date her. Jill’s character was the only thing I didn’t like about The Lives of Tao. I just couldn’t figure out why Roen was attracted to her, because she felt so two-dimensional to me. However, by the end I could see why she might be important (as this is the first in a series), and hopefully Chu will flesh out her character and make her more likeable in the next book. A Tai Chi master named Sifu Lin was a fantastic character with a Yoda vibe to him. But for me, Roen and Tao stole the show. Not only are they great characters by themselves, but the friendship that develops between them is priceless.
About nine chapters into the book, Tao begins to tell Roen his history, in the form of short paragraphs at the beginning of each chapter. In this way, the reader starts to get an idea of just how broad an influence the Quasing have had over the human race. It was a brilliant way to convey a lot of information in a subtle way, without the dreaded “info-dump.” Tao describes the ongoing war between the Genjix and the Prophus, which escalates into unspeakable horrors as each act of vengeance spins out of control. Chu wisely gives Tao a fatal human flaw: despite having lived for thousands of years, he continues to make the same mistakes over and over again. Including some cool ideas in these history lessons, like imprisoning the enemy Quasing in the body of a turtle for hundreds of years, made me downright giddy!
And the emotional payoff I mentioned at the beginning of this review? Just as the reader starts to invest in the characters, the author puts everyone in danger, and you won’t know who makes it until the last page. Chu doesn’t leave us hanging at the end, but he does set things up for book two, The Deaths of Tao, out this October.
Full of heart, humor, danger and a couple of jaw-dropping moments of “what if,” The Lives of Tao is highly recommended. Many thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.
I’m happy to report I’m doing an interview with Wesley in a couple of weeks, and I’ll be giving away my (rare and precious) ARC of The Lives of Tao to one U.S. winner! Follow this blog so you don’t miss it!