The Lives of Tao (a book review)

They've used ALL my likenesses. Without permission...

They’ve used ALL my likenesses. Without permission…

Did you know that Tai Chi was invented by an alien species that secretly attach themselves to human hosts because they would otherwise die in Earth’s atmosphere? And that those same aliens have been waging a secret war against each other for control of humanity’s destiny? Oh, and they started the Spanish Inquisition.

What, you did know that? Give yourself 50 points for giving in to your extreme paranoia. Either that or you have an alien living symbiotically in your body.

However, if you’re like me and you didn’t know about this, you might want to crack open Wesley Chu’s The Lives of Tao.

First of all, the novel mostly takes place in Chicago, which is a good enough reason to read any book. Second, third, and fourth, it has action, humor, and, to take a line from movie ratings, “scenes of mild adventure.”

When the story begins, the alien life form known as Tao is searching for a new host. Immediately. He can’t survive in the open and time is running out. Enter the hapless Roen Tan, an overweight, out of shape programmer with no life worth speaking about (so I won’t). If ever there was a host completely unsuited to the secret life of a soldier for an alien race, it’s Roen. But what choice does Tao have? Unfortunately for Roen, his sad lot in life won’t help him survive the enemy assassins bent on Tao’s destruction. He’ll need to come to grips with his new reality fast or the unexpected nature of the world that has opened up to him will come crashing down before he can experience it.

For someone like me, The Lives of Tao is a dreamy kind of novel. It has everything I like, science fiction, action, a little mystery, a little comedy … it’s a clever fish-out-of-water story, except the fish didn’t know it wasn’t in the water in the first place. The prose is fluid and the pacing pretty much perfect. Secondary characters shine without stealing the spotlight from our zero-to-hero.

Without knowing the author personally, I would think that he must have a least a little fascination with world history. While the plot doesn’t rely on it, there is plenty of intriguing back-story that weaves together the tale of how the alien species influenced major turning points in mankind’s evolution. Some of it is thrown in for humor and anecdotes, but some of it grabs your attention in smart ways.

As fun as it all sounds, it ends up being a fairly violent novel. Lots of death. It’s not a bloody mess or specifically adult novel, but there’s a war going on and so…

If I had a complaint, which I do, it’s that ultimately the novel feels afloat and undirected at the finish. The character arc doesn’t really arc. It gets to a point and then flatlines. Strangely, this didn’t bother me in the least until I sat down and thought about it (or overthought it?). There are sequels, which I haven’t read, so maybe this novel was supposed to be a long introduction. In the end, I was hoping for a little more closure on the main character’s growth, or a better view of the overall plot.

Don’t let that dissuade you, though. This is a stellar book. It’s no wonder it won some prizes and stuff. I wish someone would give me a prize. I’d take Woman of the Year at this point.

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