Review — The Tao Series (370)

I recently finished the third book in Wesley Chu’s Tao series, and while it’s not my conventional reading of sword and sorcery type stuff, it was still a good read. So, here are my full thoughts on the series as a whole, treating it as a trilogy of books (even if there are technically other works that follow the third). Since the “last” book was published in 2015, I won’t bring up any spoilers here. Instead, I’ll focus on plot and character development, writing style, and story structure as a whole.

Before we get started, let me talk about genre and story premise. I would describe these books as a secret history series where the Earth is all but controlled by this alien race called the Quasing. In the context of these books, many famous (or infamous) world leaders and prominent historical figures had aliens in their heads telling them what to do. The only way for a Quasing to leave their host to move on to the next is for the host to die, and they can’t exist outside of a person for very long. Over time, these beings split into two warring factions, called the Prophus and Genjix, and now have a secret war that has been raging for centuries. All of this is unbeknownst to the public.

The series follows one particular Quasing, Tao, as its main character. He is a Prophus operative trying to stop the Genjix from doing whatever their dastardly schemes have brought them to next. He and his host meet trouble along the way (of course) and it’s up to the two of them to save the day against all odds.

The book series is pretty good. If that sounds like a premise you would enjoy, chances are you would. I personally love secret history and learning all of the “hidden truths” about past events and people. This series basically rewrites world history from the beginning by shedding light on who was really pulling the strings behind Caesar, Napoleon, Charlamagne, etc. Another great thing about this series is that it can be pretty humorous. In something like Dresden Files, it can be serious sprinkled in with hilarious situations or comments (Harry Dresden is a funny guy after all), but in the Tao series, it doesn’t take itself quite so seriously. Humor is thrown in quite a bit. It’s not the “every once in a while: comedic relief”, but rather a “humor is always a character here, he is just quieter in some scenes”. This can be taken as a negative or a positive point, depending on your preference.

My biggest annoyance with this series though is that the series isn’t complex, and on top of that broke important rules once or twice. If I were to describe to you the overarching plot of Dresden Files, or even the plot of any one specific book in that series, it would take me quite a while because there’s a lot going on the further into the series you go. Granted, the Tao series is only three books, but describing the plot development in any one of the three would take me less than a minute each. To be honest, the plot is pretty similar between all three books, as well. It’s just too formulaic for my tastes. Going back to the rule breaking, it pretty much made one big change to the way things worked just to have a bad thing not happen, and that never sat well with me, because it almost directly contradicted a major plot point in the first book.

On top of all this, the writing itself seems pretty basic. Now, I don’t feel comfortable judging somebody on this particular point, being a fledgling writer myself, but as I was reading it there were a lot of mistakes that even I don’t make anymore. Many had to do with description and word choice, but the books are predictable. This isn’t always a bad thing, but it isn’t exactly good in this case, either.

Is the Tao series worth picking up? Sure, if the premise sounds interesting, and you like a lot of action in a book. It’s not bad by any means. I liked quite a few of the characters, and my suspension of disbelief was never broken. I’d say there’s a good book for every situation, and this series certainly has a place in an avid reader’s library.

Prompt — Death’s Influence

Cars whizzed by. They didn’t even slow down to read the sign. They knew what cardboard and ragged clothes meant.

“If only this rabble knew what I was capable of,” he muttered. “They would cower at my feet.”

He sat at the corner of a gas station, trying to make eye contact with every driver that wouldn’t want to acknowledge him. People were so selfish. They only lived for themselves. If only he had the power.

Out of the corner of his eye he spotted a limousine pull up to refuel. Limousines were dangerous. They never handed out money and things ended badly if you even asked. The beggar kept his head down as its passenger stepped out and stretched, suit obviously tailored just for him. Just in case, the beggar pointed the sign in that direction. Easily legible, but not demanding. That was safest.

A clatter of change spilled out from behind him, and he turned to see that his cat had once again knocked over the travel mug where he kept his money. “Mau! No!” he scolded, shooing it away when it tried to sniff the spoils of its victory.

Putting the change back into the thermos, he scanned around, checking to see if anyone was paying attention. Nobody was.

Except the limousine passenger. Was he coming this way?

Hurriedly, he straightened his clothes, for what it was worth. There was a difference between desperate and pathetic.

“Is that your cat?” the man asked as he approached. He nodded to the cat that perched on a nearby wall. The villain that only made his life harder.

“Uh… yeah,” he replied.

“You named it Mau?” the man wasn’t looking at him or the sign. He was just staring at the cat.

The beggar clenched his fists. “It’s a sentimental name. You got a problem with that?”

“No, no. It’s just that I saw a very similar cat with the same name in Italy. Maybe, three hundred years ago.”

The beggar snapped up to look at him, to inspect his face. “You with the CIA or some other intelligence agency?”

“Come now, do you really think cats are useful for information? Besides, photographs are newer technology, no organization could keep track of that.”

The beggar scratched his beard, suspicious.

“Tell me, where is Isis?”

“I don’t know who that is.”

“Your sister.”

“My sister’s name is Aset. I don’t talk to her anymore.”

“Because she has power you no longer have? You know part of the reason nobody worships you anymore is because you do not accept change, Osiris.”

“My name is not Osiris! The Greeks butchered my name. It’s like pronouncing chair ‘ka-ha-ray’ to make it sound fancy.”

“Either way, your memory and identity is attached to that name. People can’t worship a name they have never heard, even if it’s the name of a dead god they are familiar with.”

“Dead god,” he replied. “How ironically appropriate.”

The man sighed. “You may think that the ancient religions are dying, but it is only because you and your kin are giving up.”

The beggar glanced up. “Who are you?”

The man glanced around them to make sure nobody was watching. Then, he tucked a hand inside of his suit and pulled out a hammer. It hummed quietly as the runes inscribed on it glowed. It pulsed with electricity, tendrils of lightning curling around it.

“Thor!” the beggar whispered, glancing up at the man. “You… you have power!”

He tucked the hammer back into the suit. “Yes. I’ve discovered a way to reclaim our old abilities. One far easier to accomplish than convincing these mortals to revere and sacrifice to us. And I’ve come with an offer.”

The beggar had vague memories of a life where he held the power over life and death itself. It was so long ago. He would do anything to obtain that once more. “What must I do?”

“Our power comes purely from the reverence of the public. Our strength and that of other gods doesn’t have to be exclusive between each other as we once believed. I reclaimed my power from the cinema.”

“The what?”

“My likeness is portrayed in movies. Stories that play themselves that mortals clamber over each other to witness. They love me, and even if they do not believe it is a true story, I gain power.”

“So I must perform in these stories?”

“No, no. They will have somebody pretend to be you. It is easier for everyone this way. My goal is to reunite every god with the power they once held, and with that strength comes infinite possibilities. But I cannot do it alone. Will you join me?”

The beggar looked at the sign he had left at his feet. Unemployed.  Any offering is appreciated. “Let us conquer the world once more.”

Writing Prompt: Among the homeless live forgotten gods and ancient heroes of legend, unable to cope with society. Tell their stories.

Review — Sunless Sea

Have you ever played a game where the story was hinted at but never the focus of the game? In many single-player games, like Bioshock, or TransistorPortal, etc., you could get through the entire game without paying any attention at all to the story, regardless of how in-depth or thought provoking it may be. I tend to enjoy those games for the gameplay first, and then appreciate the story later. I’ve never been a huge fan of games that require you to know what’s going on, like Myst, because the story-driven games never seem to have interesting stories to compel me to continue.

Sunless Sea is a different story. It combines a lot of elements I love in games: slow progression and upgrades, a rogue-like “start-over with a push forward” theme, and a merciless drive to bring the player onto its knees through harsh and unforgiving rules. But when I bring up this game to other people, I set all of these aside, because in the end its not what this game is about. Sunless Sea is a story-driven, “choose your own adventure” game in a Lovecraftian setting.

In this game, you can choose the way you want to play. You can be a seafaring pirate that attacks anyone on sight, a wealthy merchant ferrying goods (often illegal and unsavory) across the seas to dangerous lands, or a scholar, trying to discover everything about this strange and vast world.

Very few games have made me feel a sense of adventure: like I’m exploring distant and strange lands, in the same way Sunless Sea does. I can find myself on distant shores and stumble upon vast treasures, only to realize I’ll have to spend most of it if I want to ensure a safe journey home.

This game is all about risk and reward. It forces you to take risks without telling you what’s at stake or even what the consequences will be. In a way this can be a little frustrating, but it adds to the feeling that this place is a real world, and in this place is real and it emulates how we often make judgments and important decisions based on the limited information and resources we have available.

I do have two major gripes with this game. The first is that there is a lot going on. The screen has a lot of information that takes time to study in order to understand what you’re looking at, and the interface is never as streamline as I would like it to be. You do learn what’s going on eventually, but the game doesn’t do a great job at telling you on its own.

But my biggest qualm with this game is that after thirty hours of playtime, I still don’t feel like I’ve made it very far. I’ve explored all these vast and interesting places, but I don’t feel as though I’ve made an impact on the world, and I don’t feel like the time I’ve spent has amounted to anything. For example, the boat I currently have is the third largest one available to buy, and the other two might as well not exist for how expensive they are and how savvy I am with trading and the economy.

I’d imagine there’s something about the game that I have simply yet to learn, but the world feels pretty much as mysterious and unknowable as it did when I first discovered all these islands, locales, and ports. In a way, that’s a good thing. It definitely makes me want to keep playing. The game is beautifully crafted, and there’s so much going on that I don’t feel as though I’ve even scratched the surface of how deep this world is. Depth like that is good, but too much makes it daunting.

Review — Ghost Talkers

First things first, historical fiction isn’t really my cup of tea. I’ve read (listened) to some fiction of eighteenth and nineteenth century pieces, and I didn’t particularly enjoy it. For whatever reason, taking creative liberties fleshing out real events doesn’t appeal to me. Perhaps it’s because I can’t grow attached to the characters, or because I know what’s going to happen. As always, there won’t be any plot spoilers or anything, especially since this book was published so recently.

That being said, I don’t have all that much experience with alternate history. I wouldn’t consider Jonathan Stroud’s works alternate history because they focus more on the characters and the premise rather than any specific period in history or events therein (save for ones in ancient history he touches on).

So when I jumped into Mary Robinette Kowal’s Ghost Talkers, I admit I was apprehensive. I have little to no interest in either of the World Wars or any relatively modern history, because frankly the use of modern weapons and tactics bore me. I didn’t want to read about some soldier stuck in a war fearing for his life.

Thankfully for me, that isn’t what the book is. It focuses primarily on a possible conspiracy that sprouted because of a few occurrences within the ranks of the military. In the English army there is a Spirit Corps: a branch of the military dedicated to communing with the souls of the dead Allies in order to gain critical information about strategic movements and positions.

The book does a good job investing the reader in the characters and, at a few points, can get quite sad. There are quite a few unexpected occurrences in this, many of the clues hidden and interwoven with the plot so cleverly you don’t even recognize clues as clues! Many books I’ve read are relatively easy to piece out “who done it”, but this one had me stumped until the reveal for a good number of reasons.

Another great factor in this book is that it feels so authentic to what I would imagine a “period piece” to be. This conveys very fluently what I would imagine that era to feel and sound like, and its nice to have characters in a book function in “modern” society for a change. (Sword and sorcery isn’t the way to go all the time, it seems!)

I’d say the largest shortcoming this book has is its main character. Her name is Ginger, and she is a ginger, for one, which is (obviously) intentional, but I personally feel is a bit silly. But she also plays the stereotypical role of the “strong woman in a man’s world” too perfectly. I understand that its somewhat the point: that character wouldn’t be very common at all in that era, after all, but still. To me, she acts very predictably, and I see that character trope too often to be able to appreciate it as much as I would like to.

Overall, nice short book. I’d be interested to see what else she has written, though I don’t think I’d be very interested in most of her other works. Not that I would know. I barely know anything about Mary Robinette Kowal.