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The Deaths Of Tao by Wesley Chu

The Deaths Of Tao by Wesley ChuReview: The Deaths Of Tao by Wesley Chu (Angry Robot, 2014)

It’s no secret that I’ve become quite obsessive about my adopted island home of Taiwan so it’s always a joy to discover authors who hail from these shores. First it was Charles Yu whose How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe has secured a permanent place on my favourite books list. Then along came Wesley Chu, another American author of Taiwanese origin, whose The Lives Of Tao was a fantastically original and enjoyable piece of sci-fi mayhem. Such was its success that he’s back already with a sequel (and another already in the pipeline). Not only that but this time he brings the action to Taiwan!

The Deaths Of Tao picks up a little down the line from its predecessor and the civil war is still raging between the Prophus and Genjix, rival factions of an alien species, the Quasing, who crash landed on Earth millions of years ago. Unable to survive in our atmosphere, these incorporeal and extraordinarily long-lived visitors inhabited the bodies of earthy organisms, hitching a ride until the rise of a conscious entity (us, naturally) with which they could communicate and whom they could also manipulate, feeding them information and ideas with an eventual aim of developing the technology which could return them home.

Idealogical differences over the Quasing’s treatment of their hosts sparked violent disagreement which soon escalated into full-blown war. Our protagonist Roen found himself an unwitting participant when the Prophus agent Tao, on the sudden death of his previous vessel, was forced to inhabit his body and induct him into the front ranks of this invisible conflict. The Lives Of Tao followed Roen’s training and struggle to accept this new reality with which he was confronted. By the time we pick up the story in Deaths both he and his Prophus friend have gone rogue, abandoning the Prophus council and following their own suspicions about recent Genjix activity. His estranged wife Jill and her Prophus remained where they were, although Roen keeps an eye out for their safety from his hidden missile silo. Yeah, this book is far from serious.

Before long Roen and Tao’s investigations bear fruit and the Prohus are forced to accept what is happening. The Genjix are attempting to recreate conditions suitable for their own unaided existence on this planet. Unfortunately this requires a significant increase in temperature and an environment entirely hostile to human life – global warming anyone? Following the trail requires Roen to rejoin the Prophus and infiltrate Genjix operation in Taiwan. Meanwhile Jill has her hands full in America as the Prophus influence in government wanes and it seems the Genjix are attempting to seize control of the entire country. On the Genjix front, one of their most venerated agents has acquired a new vessel, Enzo, trained from birth to be the perfect host – powerful, smart and deadly.

The Deaths Of Tao is really just more of the same and it’s very welcome for that. In between fleshing out the history of the alien inhabitation of our planet and the schism which led to the current situation, Chu weaves another massively entertaining tale, throwing together sci-fi, political intrigue and spy thriller. Although the tone is in some places significantly darker than the first installment it never loses its sense of humour. This is a book which is very aware of what it is, never taking itself too seriously or forgetting what it’s supposed to be. One of the strong points is the cast of characters. Flawed but likeable Roen, conflicted Jill, and their respective agents work together remarkably well and form an anchor for the rest of the novel. The supporting roles are equally well fleshed out and Chu managed to create a hell of a villain in Enzo – ruthless, willful and just generally detestable. He manages to toe the line between supervillain and overblown parody perfectly, always right at the limit of evil without ever straying into comedy territory.

And then there’s the Taiwan section. I was overjoyed to hear from Wesley himself that he had actually visited these shores to conduct some research under the guise of family visits. It certainly paid off and manages to lend those sections of the story that little bit extra authenticity. One niggling point though. Okay, I get that everyone knows Taipei and for the purposes of the story it made sense to send people there. And yeah, Kaohsiung is a fantastic city and deserving of its appearance. But come on, no Taichung? Not even a little? Have we offended thee Mr Chu? Here’s a deal, you can crash on my couch if you’ll write Feng Le sculpture park or the Greenway into the next installment. Or even better, an assault on City Hall! Just let me know…

In short, The Deaths Of Tao is extremely good fun. Nothing too heavy, just a perfectly balanced blending of sci-fi, comedy and action which should perfectly while away a lazy Sunday afternoon. If you haven’t read The Lives Of Tao already then do it. You won’t regret it, I promise. After that just try and stop yourself picking up this ridiculously fun sequel.

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The Lives Of Tao by Wesley Chu

The Lives Of Tao by Wesley ChuReview: The Lives Of Tao by Wesley Chu (Angry Robot, 2013)

I’ll admit it, I’m a sucker for the wish-fulfillment branch of sci-fi/fantasy. You know the kind, when the protagonist just could be you or someone you know. Like The Never-Ending Story for grown-ups. Hell, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Escapism’s half the reason we read, transporting ourselves to other worlds, other eras. Now and again it’s fun to be in our own era and our own bodies, becoming the hero, leaving the desk-job behind. Welcome to The Lives Of Tao.

Roen Tan is nobody. Slowly aging, getting wider every year, stuck in a cubicle farm in an anonymous software development company. He has no spine, his boss rules his life. He can’t gather the courage to ask for a date, and even if he did his lack of confidence and physique would make the outcome more or less certain. Then Tao comes into his life – and I mean literally.

Tao is a Prophus, an agent for one faction of an alien species fighting an invisible civil war among us. They’ve been here since before the dinosaurs, working to advance the evolution of local species until able to construct a craft to take them home. Why not do it themselves? The Prophus and their rivals the Genjix are gaseous lifeforms unable to survive in our atmosphere. They must inhabit hosts, sharing with them all of their memories from previous hosts through their unimaginably long lifespans. Humans, being the most intelligent species around, are their vessel of choice and all the major events of our history have been manipulated by them to allow us to advance technologically as fast as possible. The catch is that once a Prophus or Genjix enters a host they are stuck there until that host’s death.

Tao and his vessel Edward, something of a superspy in the James Bond mould, find themselves trapped following an incursion into Genjix territory – a Chicago skyscraper. Unwilling to allow his Prophus to be captured, Edward sacrifices himself, allowing Tao to seek out a new host. Unfortunately Tao’s time is limited and suitable vessels in the vicinity are thin on the ground. With scant seconds left on the clock Tao dives into… guess who?

The Lives Of Tao plays out more or less predictably from here on out. Tao, as a high-ranking spy, must whip Roen into shape in order to continue their urgent fieldwork. Cue a series of ridiculous training montages in literary form. You can almost hear the 80s cheese-rock pumping in the background as Roen has his befuddled ass kicked over and over by his mentors. All the time the Genjix are tracking him down, the net tightening around him as they race to eliminate him before his training is completed.

Sound silly? Yeah, that’s because it is. It’s gloriously silly, revelling in all the action tropes it picks up and abuses. This is not a book which takes itself seriously at all. That’s not to say it isn’t engaging though; I was hooked from the get-go by the basic premise, the hugely entertaining action scenes and Chu’s nerd humour. On top of this there’s a minor sub-plot unfolding in the background as Tao relates the history of his species’ arrival on Earth, his own experience in hosts such as Genghis Khan, and the schism which led to the current war. Some of the historical sections are wonderfully playful – the Black Death as a slate-cleaner to erase the Dark Ages? – while others are frighteningly plausible.

The Lives Of Tao is brain candy, no doubt, but with an uncanny gravitas which keeps it stuck in your head well after you finally force yourself to put it down. Especially recommended for any nerd who has ever found themselves hating a soulless office job.

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