Whenever I see the name Wesley, I think of Carey Elwes (Dread Pirate Roberts!), which inevitably leads me to Robin Hood Men in Tights. RHMT, as I call it, is quite possibly the finest spoof film of our time. In it, Robin Hood is captured during the Crusades and is imprisoned at Khalil Prison in Jerusalem. With the help of fellow inmate Asneeze, who is in for jaywalking, Robin escapes and frees the other inmates. Robin is asked by Asneeze to find his son, Ahchoo (Dave Chappelle, in his first major professional role). Upon returning to England, he discovers that Prince John has assumed control and doing a terrible job. Shenanigans ensue.
Now, what do this have to do with The Deaths of Tao? Almost nothing. except the author’s name is Wesley. Wesley Chu. Also, I had a bet with Jared Shurin that I couldn’t mention Dave Chappelle in a review. In your face, Shurin.
But, since I’m a dedicated blogger, who respects his audience enough to make a good faith effort, RHMT is a perfect jumping off point to talk about expectations. Wesley Chu’s debut novel, The Lives of Tao, was by all accounts a big hit. It had great humor, plenty of action, and most importantly, in my opinion, a protagonist that was stunningly easy to identify with. I called it the most fun I had reading this year, and that still holds true some six months later.
In Lives of Tao, Roen Tan was an everyman. Overweight, shy around women, and lacking self confidence, Roen emerged as an agent of his destiny thanks to the gentle urging of the alien living inside him. The novel is essentially about Roen’s relationships to those around him: his alien, his human secret agent instructor, and a love interest he’s struggling to maintain amid his new reality. Essentially, Lives of Tao is a novel of characters in search of a plot, and it works like a charm.
Deaths of Tao is something else. Roen is no longer lacking self confidence. He’s fit and powerful–all the things we hoped he would become in the first novel. The result is a sequel that lacks the camaraderie of its predecessor. The sense that Roen was like me, just a guy trying to make it through, is no longer prevalent. Additionally, Chu distances himself from Roen by giving Jill, Roen’s love interest in the first novel, a larger role with her own alien ball and chain. RHMT, as a Mel Brooks film, possesses cues the consumer expects. Deaths of Tao challenges that paradigm. It is a novel of plot in search of characters.
The story picks up some years after Lives of Tao. Alien factions that inhabit the world, the Genjix and the Prophus, are escalating their war and our erstwhile pair are right in the middle of it. Jill and Roen have gotten married, had a child, separated, and left their child in the care of Jill’s parents while they gallivant across the world to save humanity. There’s a scene about halfway through the novel when Roen stops in to see his son on the way to a mission. It’s a brief reminder of the magic in Lives of Tao, before much of the emotional rigmarole left in the rear view mirror. We experience some the fallout, but it’s ancillary to what amounts to a full-blown world threatening thriller with a healthy dose of politics thrown in the mix.
As for the politics, well, it’s a mixed bag. Having worked ten years in the U.S. Congress, I find myself with a unique perspective on the mechanisms. In Deaths of Tao Jill is a Senate staffer, using her position to manipulate appropriations in opposition to the Genjix agenda. To varying degrees Chu does it right, lacking only the rather specialized experience to provide nuance. Consider this a standing offer to anyone who writes politics, particularly American politics, I’ll read your manuscript. It doesn’t take much to make it code authentic and it’ll do wonders for the tiny segment of the world that will notice your hiccups.
What the politics do very well is serve the plot, a theme reinforced throughout this review. Chu could have continued the kinds of interactions that made his first book special, but he wanted to go another direction by design. He challenged himself to condense huge ideas into a digestible bite. Sacrifices are made to accomplish it, but the end result is a thrilling novel that without quirky aliens would sit triumphantly in Ian Fleming or Vince Flynn’s wheelhouse.
As I finish this discussion of Deaths of Tao I realize there’s not the kind of effusive joy that followed my reading of Chu’s debut. It may come across as disappointment. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is a fundamentally different kind of novel, one focused on story telling, not low hanging nerd-makes-good fruit that so appeals to genre readers. For all its charm Lives of Tao was not nearly as well constructed as its sequel, nor as well written. Chu embraced the challenge of writing a female point of view and does it exceptionally well. Simply put, Wesley Chu leveled up as a writer. If his third book can capture the magic of the first with the technical execution of the second, he’ll be among the elite.