The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu – Advance Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews another upcoming debut from Angry Robot Books.
“Vividly entertaining, this is a book that looks past the lively and thrilling glamour of life as an international spy and also merges several genres together into a cohesive whole to tell a story that rocks from start to finish.” ~The Founding Fields
When I first heard about The Lives of Tao late last year, I was really intrigued by the concept. On the surface, the book promised to be at least as fun a read as Guy Haley’s first Richards and Klein Investigations novel Reality 36, another SF offering from Angry Robot. Reality 36 was a novel that challenged concepts about how AI could/would develop into the future and it offered a really interesting and unique viewpoint on things. It was also very Sherlock Holmes/Dr. Watson in tone at times, and with The Lives of Tao, I got that same vibe. In the end, The Lives of Tao proved to be a really interesting book, one that feels familiar and different at the same time.
There are, for the most part, two distinct POV characters in the novel, although they often merge together given their symbiotic (not sure if this would be the correct term to use) relationship. Roen, the IT slob who hates his life and is a bit of a geek-cliche early on, made for a really refreshing character. Its been a while since I’ve read a book with a protagonist where he/she is so far down in the dumps on a personal level, in a self-pitying kind of way, and so completely unprepared for what is in store for him. The novel is about him coming to accept the changes in his life and turn himself around for the better, so that he can finally start earning some respect from the people around him, respect that he thinks is his due when he meets the other POV character, Tao. The Lives of Tao is also about Roen finding some positive direction in his life, a purpose to live and die for rather than slave away endlessly at a 9-5 job week after week with zero social life and eternal boredom.
Tao is the second major POV character in the novel and he happens to be a (rather) ephemeral alien being, part of the space-faring species known as the Quasing. A ship with some of his people on-board crash-landed on Earth hundreds of thousands, even millions of years ago, and is single-handedly responsible for pretty much all the significant historical milestones, even going so far back as choosing which species of the early Man would eventually dominate all life on the Earth. Tao himself has… inhabited several of the most prominent historical figures that we are most familiar with, Genghis Khan being one such example. For Tao, the novel is about living through one of his greatest challenges and even, to a degree, making amends for some of his past mistakes and atoning for his failures with his previous hosts.
Wesley Chu brings these two completely different characters together in a story that is as much buddy-comedy espionage thriller as it is near-future SF. Tao has had the benefit of countless “lives” or hosts over the many thousands of years of his existence. Compared to any of the greatest minds of Human history, he is an intellectual like none other. On the other hand, Roen is a very simple-minded fellow with very simple and straightforward needs. For him, there is no complexity in the world, and his life has little meaning outside of a job that he hates and a roommate who is the only person to even give a damn about him. The highpoint of the novel is how the author creates a clash between these two different personalities with their own idiosyncrasies and attitudes and outlooks on life.
For me, it is actually fairly difficult to properly categorise the novel in terms of the effect it had on me. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the book, and think that it is one of the finer books that have been put out by Angry Robot in the last year and a half. But, there’s also something about it that defies description because it does not fit into any particular genres so to speak. The Lives of Tao is the love-child of James Bond and Starsky & Hutch crossed with Johnny English, Rush Hour, Mission Impossible and Tango & Cash. That’s one heck of a buddy-comedy/espionage thriller ancestry and I say that with positivity since these are all movies (and franchises) that I’ve enjoyed. And then you learn that this love-child has been created at the behest of ancient-ancient aliens who’ve been around forever. You start to get the idea I think. The novel is absolutely jam-packed with light-hearted comedy and some really fun drama between Roen and Tao.
One of the things that I really liked about the book was the way that Wesley Chu handled the insights into Tao’s many lives. Through brief pre-chapter diary entry-style notes that are contextualised as Tao’s “teachings” to Roen while the latter sleeps at night, we learn what Tao thinks of his previous lives, especially his greatest successes and failures such as Genghis Khan. This serves to humanise his character in a way that creates sympathy with his character, and makes him out as someone I could identify with to a degree. Often, Roen asks Tao for more details when they are training or in the field on mission, and Tao always obliges. This helps to world-build the setting that the author has already created, and also shows just how much of an effect the Quasing have had on Human history, whether for good or for ill. Eventually, it all dovetails into how the Quasing civil war started out, and how the alien schism ended up affecting Human history once more. Or rather, the future of Mankind, since the Quasing are directly responsible for some of the biggest conflicts of the past, such as the World Wars for instance.
Sonya, the host to Tao’s Quasing friend Baji and one of the agents of Prophus, is another POV character that we get to see occasionally. Sonya was a really fun character to read about, perhaps even more than Roen or Tao. Prophus, the good-guy Quasing group, trained Sonya from birth to be a host since her mother was Baji’s previous host, and she is marked for great things in the organisation. She is, at first, a typical tough-girl agent character, but the author quickly evolves her from such a basic start to something much more. Over the course of the novel, there are occasional revelations about Sonya, not to mention her rather atypical interactions with Roen, that serve to differentiate her from the standard SF women cliches. She is a character who can hold her own against any of the other characters, both in terms of how she is written, and her in-setting abilities. Also, since she is also a hosted Human, we get a nice little counter-point to the relationship between Roen and Tao since Sonya is a willing host, unlike Roen, and she gets on much better with Baji than Roen does with Tao.
There are some villains here of course, particularly a rich businessman named Sean Diamont who is one of the leading members of the bad-guy Quasing group, the Genjix. Sean is also the (willing) host to Chivya, who is Tao’s nemesis and former ally. There is a particular tension between all four characters that is dealt with rather nicely throughout the novel as more is revealed about how Chivya and Tao had their falling out. The climax in particular, while a little James Bond-ian, is also the highlight of all this tension finally coming to a head. Sean I thought got somewhat short-changed in the book, since he was always just on the cameo level and did not have enough page-time to really develop as a character in his own right. Still, he is presented quite well, and I liked him quite a bit.
Additionally, just as Sonya/Baji present a counter-point to the Roen/Tao relationship, so does the Sean/Chivya relationship. With the two Prophus agents, their relationship with their Quasing is one of mutual respect, understanding and cooperation. Chivya however is far too demanding and forceful a personality, with an iron grip on his host. Their relationship is like that of a master and servant with little equability, but Sean still maintains enough control over his own actions. I found their interactions with each other to be really interesting, especially since it emphasises how different the Genjix are from the Prophus.
Simply put, there is a lot going on in the novel where the characters are concerned.
If I had any criticism of the novel, it would be that there is too much time spent on Roen getting in shape and training to be a Prophus agent, and not enough time on showing the war between the two opposing Quasing factions. I’ll admit that its really fun to see how Roen stops being a slob and becomes a competent field agent, while also learning various martial arts like t’ai-chi (a combat system that was invented by Tao incidentally!), and how Sonya gets him ready for his new life. But, there was too much of it. I think it could have been pared down to focus more on the Quasings and their relationships between themselves, including their political differences. The little tidbits we get in the novel were far too enticing for me, and I hope that we get to see a lot more of that in the sequel.
I will honestly say that The Lives of Tao is a novel that reminded me of how much simple fun a novel could be. It hit all the right notes in that respect, and I consider it to be one of the best debuts of 2013, a category that is so far looking extremely strong for the year. Definitely read it!