Since the moment I finished Wesley Chu’s debut novel, The Lives of Tao, I called reading it ‘the most fun I’ve had this year.’ I wouldn’t call it the best novel, and maybe not even the best debut, but it’s one of those reads that puts a smile on my face that won’t go away. In reading Mur Lafferty’s ‘debut’ (I put that in quotes since it’s only a debut in that it’s her first novel published by a SFWA approved house) A Shambling Guide to New York City, I found myself less joyful despite nearly identical character arcs and plot structures. My responses to myself ranged from ‘well everyone’s mileage varies’ to ‘oh my God these two books are incredibly similar why do I love one and not the other?’ Considering that question is what this review is about.
Lives of Tao tells the story of out-of-shape IT technician Roen who hears a voice in his head that turns out to be an ancient alien life-form named Tao who’s hitching a ride. Turns out the aliens have been on Earth for a long time, with two opposing factions searching for a way off-planet. The Genjix would sacrifice humanity to accomplish it, and the Prophus wouldn’t. Roen, being lucky enough to get a Prophus, is now a secret agent in a war totally beyond him.
Compare it to Shambling Guide, starring out-of-work non-fiction editor, Zoe. Looking for work in New York City, Zoe takes a job to write an undead (or as they prefer to be called, coterie) guide to the city. Not to be put off by anything — especially not her blood drinking boss or death goddess coworker — Zoe ends up deep into the coterie lifestyle. Things take a turn for the worse and she’s soon caught in the middle of a battle between nether forces.
In terms of character, both feature young fish out of water, in way over their head, with not only the need to overcome the challenge in front of them, but a few personal challenges that have set them back socially. Not an unusual arc by any means, it fits neatly into the urban fantasy (or urban science fiction?) niche where both Lives of Tao and Shambling Guide reside. Likewise, both novels follow their protagonists through periods of denial (I don’t have an alien in my head!), acceptance (damn, look at all these undead!), adjustment (I better learn how to be a secret agent!), and finally active participants in their respective discovered worlds (That’s how you defeat supernatural beasties!).
Establishing that the component pieces of Chu and Lafferty’s novels bear some congruence, why then do I find myself in love with the former and merely warm on the latter?
To begin, I find Wesley Chu funny and Mur Lafferty something closer to charming. There is no form of entertainment more subjective than humor, but I submit that Chu makes a greater effort to be overtly silly:
‘That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. So you guys were in dinosaurs; then, did you all get together in your dinosaur bodies and build dinosaur cities?’
Roen is bumbling with an out of shape body and mind. His ride-along alien, Tao, uses the biting humor of the school yard that has been getting laughs for eons. Where Chu pushes for laughs, Lafferty seems to be ubiquitous in her lightheartedness, insofar as the story rarely descends into the morose even when nearly all the characters have shuffled this mortal coil, but never treads into legitimate laughter. Instead Shambling Guide relies more on connecting with its readers’ touchstones,
She’d heard her friends in college talk about elder gods Cthulhu and Ithaqua, and the stories had sounded awesome, but she’d never actually sat down to read Lovecraft’s words. The anecdotes had been better than the stories.
Much of this differentiation comes through in the general voice of the author, where Chu is droll, Lafferty feels more cynical.
There’s also a difference in activity. I was going to initially say agency, but that isn’t right because Roen is mostly an unwilling participant and Zoe is much more of a decider. However, Roen is constantly being urged to action by Tao, and several other characters who surround them (namely other secret agent types). He ends up right in the thick of things, fighting alongside his ‘team’ to accomplish their mission. Zoe often charts her own course, but someone else mans the rudder. She possesses agency, but never feels like an agent. In terms of big picture, the result is Lives of Tao feeling like a thriller dressed up in urban fantasy clothes, and Shambling Guide more of urban-fantasy-cum-chick-lit.
If it’s not clear yet, I hope I’m demonstrating that my gushy feelings for Lives of Tao come down to the most subjective of factors. Tone and voice are so important to readers enjoyment of a novel.
Urban fantasy, a subgenre I do not typically enjoy, is often written in the kind of tone and voice employed by Lafferty throughout Shambling Guide. It’s a style that doesn’t always resonate for me. When I began considering my reasons behind all of this, I feared that it had something to do with gender — some unconscious bias on my part. Recognizing this is a bit of land mine, I was concerned that Shambling Guide wasn’t standing out for me because it featured a female protagonist making female jokes. Zoe is distressed personally because she just had an affair with a married man, and she’s fled to New York to start over. She’s got a crush on her hot neighbor, and she is constantly being seduced by her incubus coworker. There’s even some romance of a more graphic nature. These are the kinds of elements society might suggest has cooties all over them.
I know now my relative enjoyment had little to do with that influence. In fact, the most enjoyable moments in Shambling Guide begin with ‘chick lit’ elements, including Zoe’s eventual confrontation with her romantic tormentor and her interactions with same gender friends. What separates it and Lives of Tao has nothing to do with story, or plot, or gender. It just comes down to style. I fell in love with Wesley Chu’s, and I can appreciate Mur Lafferty’s. For the adventurous reader I’d strongly suggest reading both to get a real sample of how similar stories and structures can make for very different reading experiences.