|Image source: Goodreads|
Where I got it: Waterstones Glasgow
Publisher: Angry Robot
Published: April 30th 2013
Cover design: Argh! Oxford
From the cover:
When out-of-shape IT technician Roen wakes up and starts hearing voices in his head, he naturally assumes he’s losing it.
As of last night, he 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. Over the millennia his people have trained human heroes to be great leaders, to advance our species at a rate far beyond what it would have achieved on its own. 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.
So now Roen must train to be a hero worthy of his unwanted companion. Like that’s going to end up well…
The Lives Of Tao is the debut novel by Wesley Chu, and I am quite thoroughly blown away by how good it is, especially in light of that fact. From the moment we meet Tao as he is forced to transfer from his previous host to the body of our protagonist, through Roen’s realisation of his newfound fate and his training for the Prophus’ mission, into everything that follows – this story hits the ground running and barely lets up until the goosebump-inducing finale.
That’s not to say that it’s all action, all the time, of course. The progression of the relationship between Tao and Roen goes hand-in-hand with the progression of the plot, and kept me hooked throughout on both counts. As Tao undertakes the task of helping Roen to turn his whole life around, from an out-of-shape slacker with low self-esteem into the kind of confident, capable agent the Prophus needs, he also shares with Roen his own experiences with previous hosts. As it turns out, the Quasing – the collective name for the alien race that Tao belongs to – have been inside the minds of many of humanity’s greatest and best-known historical figures, in many cases turning them into the people we know them as now. Tao himself once chose none other than Genghis Khan as a host, though thanks to regular, memoir-style insights into this past relationship we learn that the famous Mongol was much more (and somewhat less) than we know now. This ties well into his efforts with Roen, which in many ways mirror that past experience despite Tao’s intention to do things differently…
Tao is incredibly smart, confident and decisive – at first, he’s pretty much everything Roen isn’t. This is vital to their relationship, especially in the beginning, as Roen relies heavily on his Quasing’s experience to survive the threats he now has to face. That said, Tao has made his own mistakes, and as events unfold and Roen’s training becomes his whole life, we begin to see just how important it really is to Tao not to make those same mistakes with Roen. This insight lends the alien being a sympathetic aspect, and deepens their relationship even while the barbed comments fly and humour underlies their exchanges. It is one masterful stroke among many by Chu, and without it this book would be far less readable than it is.
The other side of this equation is Roen himself, and his own viewpoint on everything that happens to him. Having his life turned completely upside down is difficult for him, regardless of how much better off he is – and will be – with Tao’s assistance. After all, no amount of getting in shape changes the fact that he has to be wary of assassins around every corner thanks to Tao’s presence in his life. Having a normal life will be far more difficult, and more dangerous, than it ever was before. That isn’t to say that he doesn’t try, however. In fact, at one point after a particularly harrowing mission, Roen decides to take himself out of the fight for a while and focus on his ‘normal’ life, ie. spending time with his girlfriend, Jill, and meeting her parents for the first time. In less capable writerly hands this change of pace in the novel might slow everything down, or derail the plot. Thankfully, Chu avoids derailment; Roen’s experiences while on the bench, so to speak, did more to draw sympathy than to bore me, and thus I felt more thoroughly invested when he did return to the field. Dinner with his girlfriend and her parents might seem like unnecessary drudgery, but I found these scenes to be among the most interesting and touching ones in the book. And of course, his relationship with Jill stays as relevant in the final act as it does mid-story…
A lot of the plot points and key events in this book might, upon reflection, seem a little paint-by-numbers – Regular Joe is thrust into Shadowy World Of Espionage, and must Turn Himself Around and Be The Hero – but again, the key difference is in Wesley Chu’s ability to avoid clunky approaches. The whole story, from beginning to end, is a seamless, compelling and downright nailbiting thrill ride, owing as much to the strength of the characters and their relationships as it does to the action sequences. And there are compelling characters on both sides (as if the story wasn’t engaging enough…) – the Genjix antagonist and power-seeking mastermind, Sean Diamont (and if that isn’t a badass villain name I don’t know what is) is, in his viewpoint-switching scenes, every bit as fascinating for his own drive and sense of righteousness as Roen, and in their first scene together, face to face, the sparks fairly fly – without a single punch thrown. All they do is talk, but it’s a credit to the characterisation here that this is also, for me, one of the standout scenes in the book.
The story, however, doesn’t end with the jaws-on-the-floor finale of this book. I won’t drop spoilers here, but OHMYGOD simply has to be said. And there’s more?! Sign me up.
That’s it. Sign me up. I’m hooked. Gimme moar. And if you haven’t read this yet, you are absolutely missing out. This one is definitely going on my favourites of the year pile.