Wesley Chu – The Lives of Tao

It is officially December and that means the 2014 Sci-Fi Experience has kicked off. My first SFnal read is a book that has gotten a lot of love over the last few months. If it weren’t for the rave reviews, I probably would never have picked this up. The cover isn’t particularly appealing at first (it has grown on me since) and I don’t have a very good track record with Angry Robot titles. But I’m glad I gave this book a chance. It’s the kind of story that begs to be turned into a movie.

lives of taoTHE LIVES OF TAO
by Wesley Chu

Published by: Angry Robot, 2013
Ebook: 460 pages
Series: Tao #1
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: I once wrote “Whatever has come to be has already been named, and it is known what man is, and that he is not able to dispute with one stronger than he.”

When out-of-shape IT technician Roen woke up and started hearing voices in his head, he naturally assumed he was losing it.
He wasn’t.
He now has a passenger in his brain – an ancient alien life-form called Tao, whose race crash-landed on Earth before the first fish crawled out of the oceans. Now split into two opposing factions – the peace-loving, but under-represented Prophus, and the savage, powerful Genjix – the aliens have been in a state of civil war for centuries. Both sides are searching for a way off-planet, and the Genjix will sacrifice the entire human race, if that’s what it takes.
Meanwhile, Roen is having to train to be the ultimate secret agent. Like that’s going to end up well…

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This is a fun take on the voices-in-your-head trope. We first meet Tao and his host Edward during a mission and from the very first page, reading their quippy banter and snappy back and forths, I was in love. My first thought was I wouldn’t mind having a Tao in my head. Of course, that opinion changed a lot over the course of the novel, but Wesley Chu has written a fantastic beginning that does everything it’s supposed to. It grabs the reader, immediately makes Tao likable and even manages to break his readers’ heart a little.

Edward, Tao’s host at the beginning of the story, dies in the first chapter (which qualifies this as Not A Spoiler). I don’t usually read blurbs so I assumed that Edward and Tao were the protagonists and I would get to follow the dynamic duo on their secret agent missions. Ah, I thought wrong. When his host dies heroically, Tao quickly needs to find a new human to live in or else he will die. The only options are a dog and chubby Roen Tan…

Roen is the epitamy of a loser. He hates his job, he has one friend, no love-life to speak of, and he’s overweight. So Tao has quite a road ahead of him, getting his new host up to secret agent standards – and making sure he doesn’t go crazy from the voice in his head. Roen and Tao’s relationship evolves beautifully. Of course, Roen believes he is crazy at first, of course he doubts himself and everything Tao tells him about this alien civil war that has been going on for ages and ages, and of course he resists Tao’s request for Roen to get fit.

tao banner
But Roen comes around and his character development is so well done that I’m surprised this is a first novel. Even structurally, the book is beautifully done. The ending did feel a bit rushed and things fell into place a bit too neatly but that’s a flaw I can forgive. The one other thing that bothered me a bit was the love interests. Roen had no love-life and suddenly there are two girls interested in him. So far, so good for Roen (honestly, he deserves some happiness!). But while we get to know Sonya well enough through her interactions with Roen and her own Quasing, Jill remains very flat and mostly shows up on the sidelines. You can guess what girl I was rooting for.

But none of those things were truly important because Tao was my hero in this story. Sure, Roen goes through some amazing developments but Tao had my heart from the first page and just grew on me more and more as the story progressed. He is wise but can get moody like anyone, he has a bigger cause (getting of the planet to go home) but he never loses track of the humans he inhabits and interacts with. Tao is lovable through and through. Had this been a worse novel, I still would continue reading just for Tao.

It is a lot to take in. Conflict does breed innovation, but so does diversity and cultural development. Bringing people together to share ideas is just as powerful a catalyst.

And did I mention that Tao and Roen make a wonderful team? They complement each other, they both have a sense of humor that isn’t lost even in dangerous situations.

“Jesus, did he just shoot at me?” Roen turned the corner and ran north, passing by several rows of cars. Several more bullets hit cars and shattered more windows. “God, he’s trying to kill me!”
Doubtful, he is most likely aiming for a non-vital area.
“Every part of me is vital!”

The writing isn’t perfect. Just in that quote above, the descriptions are a bit clunky and repetitive, but while it may not reach poetic heights, the language flows and keeps you reading. The book mostly lives off dialogue, but let’s not overlook Roen’s inner conflicts. He has big shoes to fill and realising that this alien that is now living in his head will be there forever. Until Roen dies. And he can read all his thoughts. That was the point where I thought being a Quasing host may not be quite as fun as expected – apart from the rigorous training, shooting exercises, spying, stake-outs, and what have you. Roen goes through basic training and remains realistic and likable. Things are hard, he doesn’t excel at everything right away. In fact, at the end of his training, he excels at very few things and that makes him all the more relatable.

Except for the ending – which I dislike for a number of reasons – this was great fun. The Lives of Tao would work so well as a movie, I can’t wait for some big studio to pick it up and just do it. Since the events at the end of the book leave quite a few questions open and offer a lot of room for more conflict, I will be rejoining Tao soon in the ominously titled The Deaths of Tao.

RATING:  7/10  –  Very good

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9 thoughts on “Wesley Chu – The Lives of Tao

  1. Carl V. Anderson says:

    I’ve seen this one before and like you the cover never grabbed me, not even enough to check out what the story was about. Thus I appreciate your review even more for shedding some light on the book. It does sound like an interesting concept. Funnily enough This Alien Shore, which I finished last week, is also an interesting take on the “voices in your head” story. How odd to come across two in less than a week

    Sorry the ending both felt rush and held some issues for you. That is always such a great disappointment, especially the rushed part. That is always where I feel an editor should have stepped in and given some more firm guidance. I can only imagine, because of having experienced this often, that endings are really difficult, because I’ve read some amazing books that almost seemed to have been taken over by a less capable writer at the end.

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    • Nadine says:

      That’s exactly what I thought. On the other hand, the first 90% of the book were wonderful and the ending isn’t bad, per se. This is a first novel, after all, and I can’t wait to see what Wesley Chu did in the sequel and what he’s going to write next.
      It’s always fun to see how writers develop and get better over time.

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  2. Andrea J says:

    I’m reading this right now, and having a good time with it. it’s what I’d describe as fun brain candy. the dialog is my favorite part. it’s not perfect, but i needed some fun brain candy and this is fitting the bill perfectly.

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  3. Carl V. Anderson says:

    I did end up reading and really enjoying this one. Passed it on to my wife and she enjoyed it as well. Ended up getting a copy for my son-in-law for Christmas. Between your review and Andrea’s you sold me on what turned out to be a really fun read, thanks!

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  4. lynnsbooks says:

    I really must read this one soon! I’ve seen a lot of really good reviews for it – shame you weren’t keen on the ending but still sounds worth the time.
    Lynn 😀

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    • Nadine says:

      You know, looking back now, I don’t even mind the ending. I am definitely reading the second book soon because now that some time has passed, all I remember are the fun moments between Roen and Tao. Never mind the ending. 😉

      Like

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