Wesley Chu’s first book, The Lives of Tao, opens with a classic James Bond setup. A secret agent is suavely chatting up an attractive woman at a hotel bar, before lifting her ID and slipping upstairs to complete his mission. All the time he’s bantering with his guide, who keeps him apprised of dangers as he helps navigate enemy territory. Suddenly, things go wrong; our agent is betrayed, cornered and out of options.
Let’s step back from the action for a moment to fill in a couple key points. The guide, Tao, is a Quasing, an alien being trapped on earth for millennia. To survive, the Quasing have inhabited the bodies of earth creatures, and over time have helped humans evolve, hoping to bring them to a level where they could rebuild their space craft and return home. The Quasing began with the belief conflict and war would advance humans faster, but eventually a second faction formed who believed there was a better way forward. Since then the two sides-the Genjix who still see conflict as the better path and the Prophus who believe in more peaceful ways forward-have been at war. This is where we come briefly back to our spy, just before he’s forced to sacrifice himself. Now Tao must find a new body to survive and continue fighting. Enter Roen Tan, textbook schlub.
Roen hates his job and life, and has convinced himself bad luck has locked him in an empty existence. He’s overweight, under-motivated, and scared of his own shadow. But, having entered his body out of necessity, Tao needs Roen to pull himself together and dig deep to get Tao back into action. This means losing weight, learning to fight, handle firearms, and go from schlub to soldier in a matter of weeks. He has to, because the only way a Quasing can leave its host is when that host dies, and Tao is essential to the Prophus cause.
Rebuilding oneself from the ground up is daunting task, which Roen doesn’t exactly embrace. Characters who complain can often be infuriating, but Chu’s brisk writing and the clever exchanges between Tao and Roen keep Tan from coming across as a whiner and Tao from being a scold. It’s a very odd Odd Couple setup, but it works beautifully. I found myself thinking their conversations were a bit like what might have been going on in Bones’s head after Spock put part of his consciousness in McCoy to survive after Wrath of Khan.
Chu’s book is ridiculously good. The fish out of water scenario always has potential, and what he’s written here is like the coolest bar band cover of that classic setup. Wesley’s goal is to take us on an incredible ride, and he absolutely succeeds. The action scenes are brisk, the dialogue is genuinely funny, and there are also some touching scenes that Chu handles well. He’s adept at keeping all of those emotions carefully balanced, and moves between them deftly, making sure the humor feels organic, never forced or jarring.
I’d say this is an excellent beach read for this summer, but you really don’t want to wait that long to dive into this one. There’s going to be plenty of other books to take up your vacation time. For example, Joe Hill’s upcoming NOS4A2 alone clocks in at like 700 pages. It would be a shame to let this one get lost in the crush of summer titles. Better you should pick this up now; it’s fast, clever, and a lot of geeky fun.