The Deaths of Tao by Wesley Chu – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk takes a look at the sequel to Wesley Chu’s stellar 2013 debut from Angry Robot.
“A great follow-up to a great book with a killer emotional ending.” ~Shadowhawk, The Founding Fields
By all accounts it has been a crazy few months of reading and writing and reviewing and viewing movies and television and what not. Ever since I started blogging daily over at my personal blog, things have been very fast-paced on all fronts and since I’ve begun investing more time in comics, reviewing novels has taken a bit of a back-seat. But, I’m hoping to get some balance back to things, so here’s my, admittedly, fourth book review of the new year!
Last year’s The Lives of Tao was a really fun read. Wes wrote a great story with some great characters and he really pulled off what seemed, at first, to be a tough plot. And it was great that people responded to it so much so that Angry Robot pushed up the release date for the sequel, which was just fantastic. I mean, how often does that happen? Very, very rare, if at all! I didn’t get a chance to read the sequel before its release date, but I did read it about a month and a half later, in December, and I really liked it. In many ways, The Deaths of Tao is a better novel than its predecessor, although it does make some of the same mistakes.
The best thing about Deaths is that it gives the spotlight to each of its three primary characters. We have Roen Tan of course, and his wife Jill who is now a Prophus agent, and we have the antagonist Enzo who is the new host for Tao’s nemesis Zoras. The entire story this time around is a three-way split between them and revolves around their successes and failures. With everything that happened in the climax of Lives, things have changed significantly for the Prophus. They got their victories and things were looking up for them, but recently the Genjix have resurrected themselves from their lows and have begun their ascension to dominance over global politics, pushing the Prophus back at every step. And these three characters are right at the center of everything. There is a huge change in status quo for the characters at the end of the novel, on both a professional and personal level, and how that comes about is the big selling point of the novel for me.
The story this time begins several years after the end of Lives. By now, Roen and Jill have married and they have a young son. Once Prophus’ top agent, Roen is now on the outskirts, pretty much a rogue now. Jill and her Quasing Baji now fulfill a vital role for the organisation and while Baji still laments the loss of Sonya, she has come to accept her new host and has worked with her to the benefit of both. The Genjix have instituted a genetic breeding program to create the perfect host vessels, obedient to them in all ways and physically and mentally capable of all that the Genjix require. Enzo is one such Adonis vessel and is the new host for Zoras who is now in a new phase of his life within the Genjix, vying for power against the other council members and holding his own. With the Genjix’s star in ascendance however, things are pretty bad for Roen, Jill, Tao, Baji and all the other Prophus out there.
Personally, I loved the time-jump. I would have preferred to have seen the story pick up from right where it left off in Lives. But I don’t mind Wes’ chosen approach at all. It adds a whole another layer of nuance to everything and it allows him to tell a really interesting story about family responsibilities and duties, whether we talk about something as small as two parents and their child, or the families that the Prophus and Genjix are, even though they don’t call themselves families in quite the same way, if at all. The estranged relationship between Roen and Jill really highlights this theme and the road that the two of them walk in order to heal their wounds is a very long and dark journey.
I loved Roen in the first book, and in this book, I admire and respect the man, finally. This is a much different character. He is more competent, for one. And badass, seriously. But he is still flawed, and Wes does a good job of exploring how and why that is. This in turn feeds into Tao’s own characterisation and it is every bit as awesome a story as Roen’s is. After living on the outskirts for so long, Roen is called back into the fold by the Prophus command, and this time we really do see how much he has changed, in pretty much all respects. From first books to second books, characters should really grow and become more than they used to be. This is where Jill and Roen really excel and I loved every moment of it.
Enzo proved to be interesting because his upbringing as an Adonis vessel has also imparted a very strong streak of defiance and wilfulness in him, not to mention arrogance. He constantly challenges Zoras and often does things withotu thinking them through, such as violating the Genjix established rules of engagement with the Prophus. All he sees around him is power and that is what he wants. I loved it all. He is such a deeply flawed character and he often gives Zoras a pause, whenever he does something totally not what he should be doing. It was always great to see Zoras humble him in turn. Genius moments, I say.
More than anything however, I loved how the climax ended up. The novel has a really good pace all throughout but things really get going in the final forty or so pages, what with the big action scene in progress in those pages. This is when the pace really picked up and where I began to have some serious doubts as to whether Roen and Jill would pull through their current predicament. This in turns feeds into the gobsmacking cliffhanger involving the Prophus and Roen’s family. Wholly unexpected and awesome beyond words. The emotional train hits you full-on with those last few pages and showcase just how great a writer Wes is.
In terms of criticisms, I’d say that some things were a bit too obvious and convenient the way this happened. The plot required Roen to be at the right time and the right place or otherwise he would miss the window of opportunity. There were indeed some facepalm moments here, but by and large, they were very few nonetheless. Some of the cliches could have been done with, such as the plot with Roen and Jill’s estrangement which, while good enough in its own right, often came across as “for plot” rather than “for character”.
And I would have loved to see more of the Prophus global operations. We get a really good sense of things all throughout, but nothing as involved as I was looking for. The history and legacy of the Prophus is quite vast, and I feel that the organisation isn’t really done justice at a time when all agents are pretty much like the Jedi in Star Wars: focused on their collective lives rather than something else.
But still, this was a massively fun book, and that’s what I care about in the end really.
More Tao: The Lives of Tao.