Few books begin more engagingly than The Lives of Tao, a science fiction romp which wears its principal strength -- the wit and humor of the narrative voice -- on its sleeve. The book opens with this exchange:
The five most egotistical personalities in history. Go.
"That's easy. You, Genghis, Alexander, Napoleon, and Kathy's nephew."
The one at Cambridge?
"He reminds me every time I see him."
As the business of intergalactic espionage quickly gets underway, we learn that this dialogue is between an immortal alien who has seen millions of years of the earth's history, and the human whose body he currently occupies. Tao, the alien, wants only to help his species return to their home planet. Edward, a sleek action hero in the mold of James Bond, is the perfect vehicle for Tao's purposes.
But when Edward is killed by enemy forces, Tao is forced to take refuge in the first available human host he can find. Unfortunately that host turns out to be Roen Tan, a morose, overweight, and lazy guy in his early thirties whose main focus in life is his cat. Tao faces the dubious task of training Roen into a worthy successor of Edward. Naturally, the fate of the world is at stake. And as one would hope, hilarity does ensue.
Action and humor are the key ingredients in Wesley Chu's cinematic debut novel, which features clever dialogue interspersed with gun battles and Tai chi. The premise of warring alien factions shaping the course of human history, and the emotional underpinning of Edward's loss -- which is never forgotten -- give undertones of seriousness to the proceedings. Flashbacks reveal complexities and some dark edges to Tao's past: As the guiding spirit of figures such as Genghis Khan, Tao has made some choices with destructive consequences.
While the reader probably won't be surprised by the trajectory of the novel -- we know Roen Tan will end up beating his fears and extra pounds -- there are some twists at the end that present intriguing possibilities for a sequel. The action sequences are rendered in vivid detail, perhaps thanks to the author's background as a professional stuntman.
Beyond the concerns of history and the fate of humanity, at its heart The Lives of Tao is a bromance. The centerpiece of the novel is the complicated friendship between Roen and Tao, and the crisp wit of their exchanges. Tao alternates as Roen's combat trainer, his psychologist, and his romantic counselor. By the final phase of the novel, Roen is nearly on equal footing with his alien mentor -- and may end up saving the world.