Four years ago Roen Tan was an out of shape, directionless lump when Tao changed his life forever. The eons old alien entered Roen out of necessity, and shaped him into a soldier in a war that’s been raging for hundreds of years. A war Tao’s side is losing badly. The two’s uneasy partnership proves more successful than either could have hoped, but the odds are still very much against them.
In Christopher Priest’s The Prestige, Priest lays out the three parts of any magic trick; The Pledge, The Performance, and The Prestige. The Lives of Tao was Wesley Chu’s version of the first part, The Pledge, where the magician establishes his or her reality on the stage. Lives introduced us to the Quasing, who crashed on earth and have survived inside living beings for thousands of years. To develop a way back to their planet, they’ve shaped the course of history. Along the way they split into two groups; the Genjix, who are willing to slash and burn their way towards their goal, and the Prophus, who believe destroying mankind to achieve their purpose is wrong and unnecessary. Their conflict has been roiling for years in the shadows of world history.
The Deaths of Tao picks up several years after the events of Wesley Chu’s debut, and things are not going well. Roen married his girlfriend Jill and the two have a son, but Roen’s abandoned them to continue fighting. Spurred on by Tao, he’s been off gathering evidence the Genjix have been pursuing a potentially game-changing new tactic in their war against the Prophus. The implications of the Genjix approach would mean the Prophus’s defeat, and dire consequences for the rest of earth. Their cause has been righteous, but the damage to Roen and Jill’s relationship is severe and the effect on both is obvious. Now the Prophus are scrambling to thwart the Genjix against formidable odds, with Roen and Jill on opposite sides of the globe, struggling to survive.
Deaths has Chu taking his characters to a darker place emotionally. Where Lives mostly channeled espionage thrillers, Deaths marches its characters into the throat of the Quasing’s war as it begins to spill out of the shadows. The enormous toll it takes on them, physically and personally, is handled very well. The interplay between Tao and Roen, one of the many strengths of the first book, has more of an edge here. The guilt Roen feels at leaving his family for a noble cause, and the fear that choice was wrong, just works so well, even in the middle of a global conflict. Tao makes decisions with thousands of years’ experience, but the toll this has taken on his host and friend weighs on him. They still get impressive results together, but there’s a heavier tension between them this time around.
The scale of The Deaths of Tao is in and of itself impressive. The story barrels towards a conclusion played out on three fronts in the midst of full out war. Chu’s given us a much more intimidating villain this time around, who’s desire for power and belief in his superiority pushes him to cross lines that worry even the Genjix. He’s monstrous enough to order the most extreme operations, and sets into motion events that lead to a stunning conclusion and irrevocably change everyone’s lives.
Which brings us to the cliffhanger ending. The final gambits on both sides end up completely altering the course of events for humans and Quasing alike. Chu concludes with a series of twists that are positively jaw-dropping. This Performance, where the reality has been transformed into something extraordinary, has set the stage for The Prestige, the payoff of this amazing performance. It’s going to be difficult to wait to see how he pulls it off, but Lives and Deaths have given ample evidence he will, and in grand style.