I always approach sophomore novels with a certain amount of trepidation. Things like middle book syndrome, sophomore slump,and rushed to market always seem to come to mind. The more I liked the debut the more hesitant I am to crack the cover on their second effort. And there's no doubt how I felt about Chu's breakout success The Lives of Tao, it's currently on my list of the best books I've read this year. So it goes without saying that I was worried that Chu may not be able to catch lightning in a bottle the second time around. Due to some gutsy writing choices, I was in for quite the roller coaster ride as my expectations were mowed down like red-shirted extras in the opening chapters but Chu manages to sell a story that while standing in the shadow of its predecessor manages to shine on its own, very different merits.
When we last left fledgling secret agent and alien host Roen Tan, he'd just managed to survive a harrowing conflict with the Genjix, that not only cost him a dear friend in Sonya but left his love interest Jill the new host for Sonya's Quasling Baji. The general structure and tone of the second novel could easily follow the successful formula, with Jill's transformation and adapting to Baji providing the same coming of age angle if not the buddy cop banter. And following the formula has certainly made more than a few careers, but Chu doesn't even appear to consider it.
The Deaths of Tao is set five years after the end of the first volume, leaving any notions of watching Jill go through a gender swapped version of Roen's experiences dead on arrival. Roen and Jill are married, but estranged and neither has custody of their young son. The Prophus are losing ground and the Genjix seem on the verge of something game changing. Jill works as an agent on Capitol Hill, trying to slow the decline of the Prophus though political channels, while Roen has gone rogue at Tao's urging leaving Jill and their son Cameron behind. And Jill is more than just a little pissed.
So obviously this is not the life we'd had planned out for our slacker-turned spy hero Roen. Gone is the wise ass screw up we grew to love, he's angry, bitter and alone and now an rogue agent with a checkered reputation. If The Lives of Tao was a comedy in a thriller's clothes, then the sequel is the opposite. This story is firmly set in thriller territory full of clandestine military operation, world ending technology, underground silos, and political maneuvering. The days of the training montages and embarrassingly earnest failures are long gone. The stakes are dire, the relationships are strained, and the weight can be seen in all of the characters.
I'll tell the truth, I really wanted to hate it.
But Chu pulls the new direction off so well, showing a more subdued version of the banter than enthralled readers before, but turning up the gas in his action sequences. The characters are pitch perfect as expected, Roen and Tao are a darker more brooding pair this time around but the ghost of their former rapid fire banter is easy to see beneath the gloom and angst. Jill is given much more screen time this time around, and is a standout. She's a Prophus agent in her own right, but manages to never be a carbon copy of Roen but isn't a shrinking violet either. Chus also never uses her to directly influence Roen's actions in the narrative, which is a nice change of pace.
Chu also introduces us to the antagonist, the newly inhabited Enzo, early on, and manages to give us an antagonist that we can easily hate, without reducing him to a caricature even as he hurtles down his ego-maniacal path to glory. I found it interesting that Chu chooses to make a human the real villain of the piece, as Enzo time and time again refuses to heed the direction of his Quasing. It's a deft touch, the machinations and motivations of a power mad upstart are far easier to parse than those of a centuries old alien from a faraway star.
The Deaths of Tao ends with a high stakes conflict taking place in three separate locales and manages not to short change any of the plot lines or characters in the hail of bullets, explosions, and unexpected plot twists. While not all fans of The Lives of Tao will be happy with the change of the status quo at both ends of this novel, Wesley Chu has proven his versatility with his sophomore effort and all his gambling appears to have paid off. His status as a rising star in the genre world hasn't dimmed a Watt.