The heart of The Lives of Tao is its protagonist, the tubby, socially awkward, and unmotivated Roen Tan. Tan is dissatisfied with his life as a cog in the corporate machine, but lacks the strength of will necessary to lift his tires out of the rut he's been travelling on for years. I'd venture we all know someone just like Roen Tan, or have been more like him than we are comfortable admitting in some time of our lives. That's the genius of Chu's choice of protagonist, he is instantly relatable. A true everyman if you will. I'm strongly reminded of Zachary Levi's portrayal of Chuck Bartowski in the television series Chuck in all the best ways. Roen starts off the novel as a whining, slovenly, schlub of a man and the heart of the novel is about his transformation into something much more.
When out-of-shape IT technician Roen woke up and started hearing voices in his head, he naturally assumed he was losing it.
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…
Chu shows us the direction Roen will be heading in, before we even meet our protagonist. We meet Edward Blair, a suave and capable agent of the alien Prophus in the opening chapter ostensibly to see how Tao comes to choose Roen as his next host. Chu certainly accomplishes that goal in short order, but showing the contrast between what Roen is and what he is expected to become is an excellent, if intentional, bonus.
Roen's path is not an easy one. While a great deal of the novel concerns Roen's training to be an agent of the Prophus, there are no uplifting training montages with a soundtrack by Survivor. Chu chooses to go the honest route and show Roen getting his head and ass handed for page after page. He doesn't learn kung fu in three months or become a crack shot. Instead, Tan gets beat up by women and senior citizens with impunity. Chu's decision to forego the allure of the secret agent lifestyle is an inspired one, allowing readers to focus on the journey of his unlikely hero.
And what a journey it is. Guided by the wisecracking Tao, whose taunts are so close to the schoolyard jibes that nerds everywhere will instantly recognize, Roen transforms before our eyes into a fitter, more confident, and more engaged person. Chu draws this element of the story out and strip mines the comedic gold from Roen's every bumble and misstep. The interplay between Roen and Tao, reminiscent of countless buddy cop comedies, is Chu's secret weapon. Between Roen's self depreciating sense of humor and Tao droll sarcasm, readers are all but guaranteed to laugh out loud as they read.
But don't let Chu's propensity for drawing laughs fool you. The more dramatic and emotional moments are handles with care that never feels forced or out of place. The action sequences are incredibly tight, effortless straddling the line between cinematic and realistic. Roen may not be the James Bond action hero that one usually sees in espionage thrillers, but readers will more than satisfied in his transformation.
There's a lot to love about The Lives of Tao. Ancient aliens playing chess with the human race as the pieces, first hand accounts about Gengis Khan and the Black Plague, historical Easter eggs for the sharp eyed reader, and so much more. It's easy to forget about all of that science fiction stuff when you are busy laughing at and cheering for Roen Tan. And that, more than anything else, makes The Lives of Tao one of the best debuts I've read this year.