Thursday, December 30, 2021

Book 316: The Lives of Tao

"He would have to go shopping for a new wardrobe to fit his new role. Roen imagined a long trench coat like Neo, with cool sunglasses and a big gun hanging at his waist. Maybe he could have a secret weapons locker built in his closet, or by the laundry hamper. Or better yet, it could be a compartment that opens once he turned some hidden lever. Turn the faucet left two turns, pull Brave New World on the shelf, tap the alarm clock twice; bam, machine gun!"

Dates read: May 15-20, 2019

Rating: 5/10

What is it that makes for greatness? Not just normal high achievement, but the people whose names go down in history. I mean, obviously having been part of a dominant culture helps (if you're on the vanquished side, it likely won't matter how amazing you were because no one will survive who ensures your story lives on). And talent is crucial, too, though also subject to the flukes of opportunity. But it's something different that pushes the great to the the top, even as the merely talented and/or skilled fall into anonymity.

In Wesley Chu's The Lives of Tao, it seems that what often bridges the gap from being good at something to true greatness is the help of an ageless, symbiotic alien race called Quasings. When they crash-landed on Earth, the different gravity/atmospheric pressure rendered them unable to exist without a host, and the best hosts were the most powerful creatures on the planet: humans. Over time, the Quasings split into two camps: the Prophus are sympathetic to humans, and want to work with them to achieve their goals, but the Genjix are ruthless, wanting only to return home by any means necessary. When we meet the Prohus Tao in Chicago, his longtime host is Edward Blair, with whom he's developed a deep and trusting relationship, and who is highly trained for the espionage that the war between the aliens requires. But Blair is killed, leaving Tao precious little time to find a new place to live. Who he finds is Roen Tan, who is lazy and out of shape and unhappy with his life as an IT worker, and so a new partnership is born.

Roen isn't especially pleased, at first, to have a bossy alien suddenly living in his head, particularly one whose presence means that Roen is now targeted by the Genjix. But there are upsides: Tao helps him to become extremely good at his job, have more confidence and finally ask out his longtime work crush, Jill, and starts getting him in shape through combat training with a fellow Prophus host, Sonya. Tao also shares with Roen the lessons he learned (and imparted) during the experiences he had while connected to Sun Tzu and Genghis Khan, among others. The training becomes the most essential, though, as Tao's leadership role among the Prophus means that Roen needs to be ready to go into battle much sooner than he would have liked.

This book manages to be complicated and kind of dumb at the same time. Thankfully, in large part because of Chu's ear for snappy dialogue, it's charming enough to sort of get away with it. The heart of the book is the relationship that develops between Tao and Roen, the slow growing of fondness and trust. Both characters can be a little one-note: Tao tends to be pedantic, remote, and impatient, while Roen is often whiny and immature (he does have a "growing up" arc, but it's not sold especially well). But when their banter gets to a quippy bicker, as it often does, it's enjoyable and reads quickly. Indeed, the whole thing reads quickly, because many of the beats, like the training montage and the first battle, feel very familiar to anyone who's ever watched an action movie.

In the end, though, there was just too much plot and too much sloppiness in executing it for the book to actually succeed. While Chu's enthusiasm for the world he created shines through, there's way too much backstory about the Quasings without nearly enough reason to care. It feels like he has so much story that he wants to tell that he forgets to give any of it room to breathe, rushing frantically from event to event without really taking time for the character moments that would give it heart. If you're looking for a light-hearted, science-fiction action story, you'll probably get a lot out of this. It would be an easy airplane or beach read. If you're looking for something with more character focus or substance, though, give this a pass. 

One year ago, I was reading: The Wife Upstairs

Two years ago, I was reading: Catch-22

Three years ago, I was reading: Margaret Beaufort

Four years ago, I was reading: Fourth of July Creek

Five years ago, I was reading: Where'd You Go, Bernadette?

Six years ago, I was reading: The Creation of Anne Boleyn

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