How’s this for a quirky, compelling sci-fi setup: On the Earth of Wesley Chu’s Tao trilogy, a secret war has raged for generations between two factions of the stranded, symbiotic alien race the Quasing: the Prophus, who hope to influence human development so we can help them return to their home planet, and the militant Genjix, who want to transform Earth into a planet much like their own, at the cost of all other native life. Caught in-between are the humans selected as “vessels” by the aliens, who take up residence inside their bodies (the hosts have access to 65 million years of Quasing experience and memory, so it’s unsurprising that all of history’s greatest figures have been inhabits by agents of one side or the other).
What you might not have guessed from that epic setup is the book are hilarious, kicking off with Tao, a key figure in the Prophus faction, losing his host and unwittingly winding up in the out-of-shape body of Roen, a geeky IT tech. In a fast-moving hybrid of sci-fi thriller and buddy cop comedy, Tao must belittle and cajole Tao into getting into shape, if only to prepare him to face the Genjix agents that will surely soon come calling. As the trilogy barrels on, Roen grows into a true leader, but it may already be too late for humanity, because the Prophus seem to be on the losing side…
If you have yet to jump into this series, now is the perfect time—the final installment, The Rebirths of Tao, releases tomorrow.
As origin stories go, the first book, The Lives of Tao, does an excellent job with laying the groundwork. Watching Roen hone his warrior skills while trying to also lead a normal life (all the while bickering with the alien in his head) is great fun. Chu manages to believably portray Roen coming to grips with a terrible secret, one that isolates him from the rest of humanity, amidst a fun spy thriller. Amusingly, he also explores how how boring actual spy work is compared to spy movies. Though the Odd Couple rivalry between host and symbiont is the highlight (sample quote: “The next time you are assaulted by a senior citizen, I want you to have a fighting chance.”), Chu is also adept at writing cinematic action sequences—the tense, brutal fights in the Tao series start in earnest in the opening pages, as Tao and his soon-to-be-former host fight their way through the John Hancock Center during a Genjix attack.
Sequel The Deaths of Tao takes the story in a darker direction. Set three years later, it reveals Roen and Tao to have split from Prophus Command to chase their own pet theories about the Genjix’s plans. Meanwhile, another story thread takes us to Washington, where Roen’s ex-wife Jill (herself a Prophus agent) has to untangle a web of political conspiracy stretching from the U.S. to Asia as Genjix agents attempt a government takeover in order to push their sinister agenda forward. Chu gets good mileage out of Jill’s pistol-and-Parkour approach to combat (her tutor calls it “ninja training”) and manages to expertly juggle tense, brutal beatdowns with a complex, intricate political conspiracy. It’s also a book with real stakes, as the grimmer tone and tricksier plotting puts the main characters on their back foot and keeps them there. It changes “how will they get out of this?” to “will they get out of this?” a much more interesting narrative question.
The Rebirths of Tao is a suitably epic trilogy-capper in both scope and scale. This time, the battlefield is the whole world, with Roen once again at the center of things. If the first book is an action-adventure and the second a political thriller, the conclusion is something approaching dystopian guerrilla warfare. It still has that snarky sense of humor and the same frenetic action, but the focus has changed. In fact, it’s a book that explores change more than anything else. The characters are a far cry from who they were at the start. They’re struggling to live their lives. But even as the tone edges toward cynicism, Chu manages to keep hope alive. Every moment, win or lose, when feels like the good guys hung on by tooth and nail, he makes it feel like his characters (and his readers with them) are triumphing against the odds, beaten but never broken. So many authors think telling a serious story means letting their characters get beaten down, but Chu helps them stand tall against the monumental opposition, and they’re all the more compelling for it.
This series is witty, fast, and furious. The action punches like nothing else. It has tons of heart, and characters who take a beating and give back twice as good. It grows over time, and by the end, you’re rooting for old friends to kick ass and hoping the villains get what they deserve. In short, it’s a ride and a half, and one you should definitely take.