Saturday, 21 September 2013

The Lives of Tao - Book Review

The Lives of Tao
by Wesley Chu

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… (Synopsis from Goodreads)

This was one of the Fantasy Faction science fiction book club picks, and I’m glad it was chosen. I enjoyed it, and it seemed to go down well with the book club too.

Tao is an alien life form that needs to live inside a human host to survive. Its species is trying to use humans to help return them to their planet, but there are two factions that violently disagree on their methods in doing so. The aliens usually merge with humans who have military/secret-agent training and are aware of the aliens and their secret war, but circumstances force Tao to choose Roen as a host instead. Roen is an out-of-shape IT technician and a very unlikely secret agent. Tao has a lot of work to do to get him ready for his new life.

This is a really fun book. In many ways it reminded me of the TV series Chuck, but with aliens instead of the Intersect. There are some fantastic action scenes and the book is generally fast-paced, and though the plot is predictable at points, it does exactly what you want it to. There are plenty of funny moments, an easily likeable main character, and even a training montage that worked very well! Sometimes protagonists gain skills too quickly or easily in fiction; here, you can really see and feel how hard Roen has had to work for it.

What makes this book work so well is the interaction between Tao and Roen. Both characters are written so well that each maintains a distinct personality, even though Roen is effectively talking to himself inside his own head. Their conversations provide great background and comic relief, and I enjoyed finding out more about Tao’s past hosts, and about his regrets. Tao seems to care a great deal about each one of his hosts, even the ones who defied him, feeling personally responsible for all failures. He’s an astute and interesting observer of Roen’s life, helping him to see that he needs to stop dreaming and actually change things. Tao genuinely changes Roen’s life for the better, and becomes the best friend that Roen could ask for.

I think that last point is important because there is also a slightly creepy element to Tao and Roen’s relationship. Tao entered Roen’s body and mind without permission. He is using Roen, and there is no way to get around that fact. Tao needs Roen to train and to join in his cause, and at first it doesn’t seem like he’s giving Roen much choice. He sees everything Roen does and has access to his thoughts, and Roen will now never have a private moment again. He can even control Roen’s body while he sleeps. There were times when I thought Tao was not taking this into account enough and was a bit pushy with Roen. But, this is really the difference between the good guys and the bad guys here. Tao really does care about Roen, and Roen really does benefit from having Tao with him. Tao might be using Roen, but he gives back and lets Roen use him too.

Having said that, not all the good guys seem to act this way. The Prophus claim to be better than the Genjix, but both sides seem to value their alien lives over their human ones, and while the Genjix encourage an almost religious awe, this isn’t exactly discouraged amongst the good guys. Even Tao sometimes reveals this attitude a little – the Genjix can kill as many humans as they like, but the conflict does not become truly horrifying to him until the aliens themselves begin dying. I thought these issues of agency and the value of human life were explored well, particularly in one scene involving a hospitalised host, and it added a nice thoughtful note to an otherwise action-focussed plot. This is a fun book, but also one with plenty of interesting things to discuss!

There were some bits that disappointed me a little. I really loved the character of Sonja and wished that she could have featured more than she did, and I would also have liked to learn just a little more about one of Tao’s previous lives (his big regret). I also wasn’t entirely sure about certain aspects of the ending, in particular the ‘save the princesses’ element, though I did like that this was referenced as exactly that. Having said that, the ending was dramatic and moving, and I’m definitely looking forward to finding out what happens next.

The Lives of Tao is an entertaining, action-packed book, with some interesting questions beneath the surface, as well as great characters and humour.

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