Review: The Lives of Tao

The only redeeming feature of this book is that it makes me optimistic that if I ever manage to write a book I will easily get published as it can’t be any worse than this book.  Let me be clear, this book is not awful, it is merely praised far out of proportion to its quality.

The premise of the show is basically the same as the TV show Chuck except you replace the Intersect with aliens and the main character doesn’t become a martial arts master instantaneously.  It is also nowhere near as funny as a good Chuck episode (basically all of them in the first two seasons).  I don’t understand the reviews saying it was lough out loud funny, making dull jabs at the fat and unmotivated main character Roen barely elicits a chuckle from me.  To see this done right look no further than Bob of Harry Dresden or, keeping to the talking skull motif, Morte from Planescape Torment.

So the premise is fine, but Chu does nothing to flesh it out.  For instance all we know about the aliens are that they are somehow a spacefaring amoeba race that were somehow caught in a meteor shower and crash landed on Earth where the environment is hostile to them.  Their only hope for survival is to somehow inhabit other living creatures on Earth, which seems pretty sketchy considering they are not naturally parasites and the odds that they are compatible with Earth physiologies is pretty slim and the whole the host has to die for them to leave thing sounds incredibly contrived.  They at some point latch onto humans as the best chance for developing technology to return them to space.  Yet, they do an absolutely awful job.  Why wait until Newton to reveal gravity?  Why would you wipe out civilizations if your goal is new technology?  That seems counterproductive.  More people means more people thinking and more opportunities to develop something huge amounts of people want.  We live in the most peaceful era in human history and technological progress is growing as fast as it ever has.

Anyway, the aliens are terrible at shepherding humanity along and we know nothing else about them or their society before coming to Earth.  All we know is that the aliens split into two factions, one advocating war to speed up progress (see the previous paragraph for why this is dumb) and the other of a more benign bent.  Unfortunately, Chu merely tells us this because at not point in the book is the difference between the two factions ever made clear. Both are responsible for terrible things throughout history and both force themselves upon hosts just like in our main character’s case where he is unwittingly thrown into an global war between two Illuminati-like factions.  This certainly dampens much of the motivation to keep reading when you aren’t sure what each side is actually trying to accomplish.  Mostly the aliens just seem petty and out to wage their war with each other, decidedly unlike an ageless creature of an advanced race that has seen the rise and fall of countless human civilizations.

It’s like he doesn’t care about his setting at all.  We learn nothing about the elaborate organizations constructed by each alien faction.  Compare this with the Chequy in the book The Rook which made the supernatural espionage agency feel like an actual character.  Here nebulous superiors issue cryptic missions to subordinates and that is all we ever know.  Tao, the main character’s alien companion, despite being a founder of the good alien faction seems stuck as a grunt.  Furthermore, both sides complain about money, even worrying about 50,000 a day surveillance costs yet have secret mountain bases with large staffs and state of the art submarines.  It’s a bit incongruous that the good faction pays their people nothing while having all these resources at hand.  Also at one point the author claims Sun Tzu was part of the evil alien faction despite having lived long before the faction split.  As I said he has no respect for his setting.

So maybe he elided the details concerning the aliens and their operations to write a good story?  Except he didn’t.  His characters are just as shallow.  The main character’s only defining trait is that he is a fat slob with self esteem issues.  The author never manages to convince us that he changes and in fact even near the end he seems pathetic and weak.  This is after nearly two years of training, which is a lot.  But all the other characters are so nice and considerate tell him what a wonderful job he is doing even though he never really comes into his own.

His alien, Tao, is similarly disappointing.  At no point do you think this guy is thousands of millennia old from a technologically advanced race and that he nurtured such figures as Genghis freaking Khan.  Instead his role seems to be a peppy personal trainer for the fat loser that is Roen Tam.  The only thing he really offers is the ability to code quickly.  Meanwhile, Roen has to learn a bunch of skills that conceivably the alien could do, like how to spot a tail, or memorizing a bunch of things Tao should already know.  On top of that you get a lousy stipend to live on while you wage a secret war.  If I were Roen I would be mad that Tao dragged me into such a dangerous life with so few perks.  It’s not like he couldn’t have hired a personal trainer and taken some Tai’chi lessons himself…  Speaking of which Roen changes his life far too readily.  Is it really as easy as someone yelling at you all the time to take care of yourself?  They don’t even have to threaten him with the possibility of being eliminated so Tao can move to a better a host.

There are other characters that mostly serve to fawn over Roen from his creepily supporting girlfriend to the Lara Craft type to random dudes on missions who are all too nice to ever go around killing people.  Just once he needed to meet someone who was had no patience for his whining, incompetent ways.

Sadly, the plot doesn’t hold up either.  Roen is in a job he hates when Tao comes along.  Then we get a training sequence that has none of the rousing qualities of Rockie or any other sports movies or even Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai.  We have people telling us Roen is getting better and always having an encouraging word for him.  Yet any evidence of his progress is lost every time he gets his ass kicked or opens his mouth to whine again.  If people are identifying with Roen I really worry about the generation of self-entitled cry babies we are raising.

He goes on a couple of dubiously motivated missions where we are once again assured that he is doing just GREAT! (say that in Tony the Tiger voice for best effect).  All of his teammates are super supportive even though his best attack is to throw his rifle at his foe so someone else can kill him.  Pretty sure real tactical forces would chew this guy up.  Again, a year of full time combat training is actually a lot, far more than our domestic police officers receive for instance and yet Roen is still an unmitigated pussy.

After assisting in the suicide of another alien he falls into depression and decides that he needs to watch TV for a few weeks.  It is at this point that Chu’s awful tendency to narrate things is particularly detrimental.  We are told, emphasis on TOLD, Roen hates his life and is melancholy and is letting himself fall apart again.  Then a few pages and months later he reaches some inane epiphany and Tao and him make up in a saccharine exchange of apologies.  It’s really awful stuff.

The last part of the book is some weird convention between the alien factions that actually had a lot of promise none of which is capitalized upon.  In its place his girlfriend shows up due out of the blue to be a damsel in distress (there was an easy set up for this but Chu sucks at plotting and just shoved it in with a quick throwaway explanation).  Then we get some poorly written combat that didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me before Roen is off to save Lara Croft and his girlfriend from the clutches of the evil aliens.  Roen does a few heroic/stupid things and punches the bad guy in the wrist and breaks it (that seems unlikely unless he is geriatric).  The book ends with Jill being inhabited by an alien as was entirely predictable.

The problem with the plot is that there is no overarching goal.  What is the bad guy’s nefarious scheme?  What are the good guys trying to accomplish?  This all ties in with my earlier comment about he never SHOWS us what the difference is between the alien factions, unless he really is trying to portray the aliens as petty and using humans as pawns for their civil war.  Which is actually pretty cool, but seems unlikely to be how Chu wants us to respond.

On top of having no idea how to write characters or construct a proper plot, Chu’s writing would embarrass a lot of high school honor students.  His descriptions are dull and often confusing with improper usage of idioms.  As already laid out earlier, he retreats into narration far too often and at inopportune times.  Strangely I found the writing grew worse as the book went on.  I would have suspected he would grow stronger and more confident as he progressed, but the best scene in the whole book is the opening one.  Why couldn’t we have an entire book about Edward rather than pathetic creature that is Roen Tam?

Again I am just baffled at the praise heaped on this book.  There are many new authors far more deserving of it since they actually express a mastery of authorial skill.  Take The Rook for instance which brims with interesting characters and a well-developed clandestine agency and is also by a new author.  Yeah, I mentioned The Rook again, so if you haven’t read it go read it and ignore The Lives of Tao.  You can thank me later because you won’t be able to put it down.


Wheel of Time Review: Books 12-14

Now we come to the Brandon Sanderson books.  He gets a lot of flak, some of it deserved and some of it due to the constraints of Jordan’s plotting.  Overall he was adequate, producing neither the best books nor the worst in the series.

The Gathering Storm: In my opinion the best thing that Sanderson writes in all three books is near the beginning of this one when Dark Rand shows up.  The entire scene with Semirhage taking control of him, to his use of the True Power, to his eventual banishment of Cadsuane gripped me like very little in the whole series did.  The Fall of Rand has been hinted at for so long and it was almost good enough to forgive the excessive wait.  It is hard to say whether Sanderson nailed the sequence of events or if it was merely a legacy of Jordan’s often immaculate plotting.  Either way Dark Rand is awesome.  Not my favorite incarnation of Rand, I prefer the slightly crazy and unpredictable Rand of books 5 and 6, but still intriguing and probably the best descent into darkness of any character in any literature I can recall.

However, Dark Rand doesn’t get much room to breathe, committing only one ambiguously evil act when he tries to kill Graendel and takes out a bunch of mind-controlled innocents.  I again blame the drawn out state of affairs of books 7-10 for forcing Sanderson to compress the plot.  Eventually, Cadsuane meddles again and tries to get Rand’s father, Tam, to talk to him after a satisfying scene where Tam calls her a bully, because lets face it, for all her calls for respect she is just a bully.  She lords her status over Aes Sedai and constantly tries to control Rand and seems to rely on force far too often to try to get a point across.  Rand explodes after learning of Cadsuane’s involvement in Tam seeing him and then sits on Dragonmount to philosophize with himself.  First, this was the worst possible way to purge Dark Rand.  I would have much preferred a heart-wrenching moment with Tam.  After all Rand is young and not even groomed for the duties he has assumed, seeing his hard shell melt in his father’s arms would be much better.  Instead we get a sophomoric introspection about life and reincarnation and a dawning realization that you should make the most of second chances.  This series seems to have an aversion to major characters interacting with each other and Rand’s solitary epiphany is emblematic of that.

The worst part of the cleansing of Dark Rand is  that we then get Jesus Rand which is easily the worst incarnation of Rand.  Sanderson softens (hardens?) him up again near the Last Battle, but his benign mystic attitude is kind of grating at times.

The other major plotline is in the White Tower where Egwene still resides as a novice undermining Elaida.  The is interesting and all but the resolution is decidedly unsatisfying.  After Egwene lays the smackdown on some Seanchan that attack the White Tower everything just falls into place for her and despite this she chews out the people who rescued her from the White Tower.  We learn that a secret cabal of Aes Sedai engineered the entire split to gain power for themselves, but mucked everything up, and decide that Egwene is their best option now.  Meanwhile rather than having to actually deal with Elaida she is conveniently taken captive by the Seanchan so the plotline can be neatly wrapped up.  This happens a frustrating amount of times in the series: we have Liandrin, Elaida, and Moghedien captured by the Seanchan and Galina is similarly indentured to the Wise Ones.  I guess this is the series’ attempt at karmic justice, but it always seems to be a deus ex machina situation so that the authors can avoid messy aftermaths.

Anyways the mending of the split White Tower is unsatisfying because everything felt so pointless.  Egwene’s machinations are mostly irrelevant as is the siege the rebels carried out.  Instead a Seanchan attack deposes Elaida and aforementioned secret cabal of incompetents elect Egwene as Amyrlin.  I want characters to succeed because of their actions, not because of serendipity.

Before I conclude this review, I would point out that Verin’s confession to Egwene about being Black Ajah is one of the best in the series.  It caused me to tear up a bit.  Still I can’t forgive Verin giving Matt a letter with time-sensitive information and telling him not to open it.  It was thoroughly inane and never properly explained away.

If it is not clear this is Sanderson’s best book by a fair margin.  The next is weak and the last is constrained by a foreordained ending that had little hope of being exceptional.

Towers of Midnight: Much of the disappointment of this book results from the feeling that it is rushing along trying to finish plotlines so everyone can be around for the Last Battle.  Again, the stagnation of the plot in books 7-10 has suffocated more interesting and more important plotlines in later books.

Perrin continues to underwhelm.  He has been isolated from the world for so long and the events in his arc are so insignificant that every one of his scenes seems like a completely different book.  The rest of the world is gathering enormous armies for the Last Battle and Perrin is trying to kill one guy, Slayer, and is derping around with Galad and the Whitecloaks.  At least Perrin starts to develop skills in the Wolf Dream, turning into something of a bad ass there.  I especially like when he basically trumps Egwene in the battle with Messana; that stuffy bitch needed to be taken down a notch there.

Speaking of Egwene, she is terribly annoying in this book.  First, the scene where she tries to shackle Perrin in the middle of a battle with a Forsaken and Black Ajah is both arrogant and mind-numbingly stupid.  Continuing her pomposity she decides to oppose Rand in breaking the seals despite having no alternative nor the advantage of the memories of Lews Therin to aid her.  Who are you going to trust?  Uppity 19 year old Amyrlin or a dude that is hundreds of years old and has experience fighting the Dark One?  So yeah Egwene continues to disappoint whenever she is not surrounded by other Aes Sedai who just make her look OK in comparison.

Finally, we have Mat who craftily kills the Gholam and then enters the Tower of Ghenji with Thom and Noal.  I was disappointed that Noal, who is the legendary Jain Farstrider, i.e. the equivalent of Marco Polo, dies without really utilizing his impressive body of knowledge.  In particular his experiences with the Shar would have been interesting when they appear in the final book as enemies.  Still the entire Tower section felt like old school D&D, like the famous adventure module Tomb of Horrors.  Also I was legitimately surprised by how the prophecies regarding Mat were finally resolved.

At this point I have to bring up the suspicion that Jordan and Sanderson are trolling us with the romances.  I have already written how poorly motivated the couplings in the series are and this book throws two of the worst at us.  I mean Thom and Moiraine?  Even the other characters are surprised by this and it is doubly weird considering Thom’s past with Aes Sedai.  Then we also have Galad and Berelain, which is less galling because neither character I care about, though it is hard to see Galad really falling for anyone as morally ambiguous as Berelain.

In conclusion, kind of a sloppy book that exists mostly to set up the last book.

A Memory of Light: The fact that we know there is a giant Last Battle and the Rand must fight the Dark One leaves few surprises here except what the body count is.  I have no problem with the killing off of characters, after all nobody important has died for the entirety of the series and the Pattern demands balance, what I dislike is how they get snuffed.

Your enjoyment of this book will depend on how much you like battle scenes as that is pretty much the entirety of this book.  The only reprieve is a short sequence where the Black Tower is reclaimed.  I think Sanderson is better at this stuff the Jordan, but it still gets tiresome after 800 pages.

So things that bothered me.  First off, how is Demandred such a good general and swordsman when he lived in an era of peace, when he has access to the power as a weapon and when technology allowed for more effective weapons than swords?  I can maybe give him learning to battle tactics during the War of Power, but not being a better swordsman than the best of an era when melee weapons are the dominant form of warfare.  Still I let it pass because he is essentially the only formidable Forsaken in the entire series.

While we are on the topic of Demandred, him fighting three sword duels against Gawyn, Galad and Lan was just ridiculous.  How they even got to him on a crowded battlefield is something that boggles the mind.  Then we have Gawyn fail to accomplish anything with his death, Galad only inflicting a quickly healed wound and Lan predictably Sheathing the Sword to defeat him.  I guess he was built up as invincible when it came to battling with the Power, but this succession of duels felt like a fan fiction author determining who was the best swordsman.  Also I was madly disappointed that Demandred never learned that it was Mat that bested him on the battlefield and not Lews Therin.  Hell, I though Matt should have taken him out with his quarterstaff, we know that he could take Gawyn and Galad simultaneously.

Another stupid thing was reading that all the Great Captains had their minds tampered with and that no Aes Sedai, not even Egwene who is trained in using Telaranrhiod, thought to guard the dream world.  Not even from regular old spying like they did on the White Tower during the split.  This felt horror movie retarded, only allowed to further events rather than because the characters would actually overlook such a thing.

Characters that died in seemingly feckless ways: Siuan, Bryne, Birgitte, Gawyn, Bashere.  Siuan dies almost off camera defending Mat against raid on HQ and Bryne quickly follows.  Seemed anticlimactic.  I have no idea how Elayne and Birigtte were ambushed, it felt like a contrivance so Birgitte could come back with the Horn.  As I said earlier Gawyn accomplishes nothing continuing his run of utter uselessness.  I was also sad Bashere died and just got a quick mention.

Other things that annoyed me.  How did nobody figure out the Horn was unbound since Mat had died?  Why was Logain so criminally underused?  The entire Faile story.  With gateways how is getting an object from point A to point B so hard?  More fail from Faile.  What the fuck is anti-balefire?  Why couldn’t Cadsuane die?

Finally, we have the battle with the Dark One.  First off, why is Moiraine there considering the power has been nearly burned out of her?  Secondly, the entire Alanna thing was dumb since she can let go of the Warder bond at any point.  Also didn’t see the point of Moridin at all, despite being an interesting character.  I guess they had to trick him so they could use the True Power.  But lets talk about the Dark One.  TALKING IN ALL CAPS IS DUMB.  The Dark One must not be popular on the internet.

I guess they can’t have a physical battle, but this was a pretty tepid ideological battle.  The consequences of killing the Dark One do not follow logically.  First off, we know the Dark One is outside the Pattern.  Secondly, we know the Pattern strives for balance.  Yet we are supposed to believe that without the Dark One all humans will turn into glassy-eyed care bears, that the Pattern will only spin out humans with only good inside them.  The Dark One is not the source of all evil according to everything we have learned up to this point.  I mean the Age of Legends was fine even before they created the Bore that let the Dark One out.  Furthermore, lets take it at face value as what will happen.  Is that actually worse than a world with the Dark One still around?  I think I would take happy people over a world with war and poverty and all the other terrible things humans do to each other.  But apparently Rand feels that is all necessary for humanity to thrive.  Rand is wrong.

Then we have the epilogue.  Not sure where the body swap thing came from, but OK.  What I dislike is that all the major characters get maybe a token scene together in this book or the last book and the epilogue doesn’t address that paucity at all.  Also Rand’s ending has me scratching my head.  Does he really just want to go derp derping around the world?  He doesn’t want to continue to make the world a better place or even hang out with his posse of beautiful women that love him?  I just never felt that Rand was itching to be a carefree vagrant all the time, that seems more like a Mat ending to me.  Also that would free him from the clutches of Tuon which can only make him happier.

Again, the books had to end this way, but it still felt a bit unfulfilling.  I will have another post with broader thoughts about the entire series.

Wheel of Time: Books 9-11

The series gets even worse for two books followed by a return to form for Robert Jordan.

Winter’s Heart:  Another plodding book.  Perrin is still doing nothing but sucking up pages.  How Jordan managed to stretch out such a simple plot as rescuing Faile to four book I will never know, but it is a skill better left unused.

Similarly, Elayne is still consolidating power in Andor, the details of which bore me, just like the character.  Elayne is so bland.  I prefer the irrationality of Egwene to Elayne and the former at least accomplishes many momentous things.  Taking Andor after Rand already had it is such a contrived situation to give Elayne something to do.  Also the logic saying it is for the good of Andor to have a succession war is downright insane.  Protracted sieges and war is about the worst thing you can do for your people, whatever it may do to their “pride.”  However, Elayne has to prove that she is made of stern stuff and sacrificing a bunch of Andorians is the way she chooses to go about it.

Mat, rescues the book once again.  His first confrontation with his future wife is hilarious even though we already knew who the Daughter of the Nine Moons was.  This plotline will also be the lifeline of the following and worst book, Crossroads of Twilight.

Finally, Rand derps around in Far Madding to kill some inconsequential Ashaman.  The only way this makes sense is if Rand is deliberately trying to avoid responsibility for awhile, but Jordan doesn’t really hint at this angle at all.  Instead this is a pointless diversion.  At least we get Rand cleaning Saidin, though again Jordan writes a very understated battle, skipping over things like Forsaken dying.

Crossroads of Twilight: If you go to the wiki summary of this book it says

“Elayne Trakand continues trying to solidify her hold on the Lion Throne of Andor.”

Which is basically the same sentence  about her character in the summary of the last book.  This describes the entire book.  Nothing happens.  You could skip to the last chapter where Egwene is stupidly captured yet again (seriously. she didn’t take any precautions) and not miss a beat.  Elayne is still winning the throne in Andor.  Perrin is still chasing Faile.  Matt is still running from the Seanchan.  Rand disappears for a book.

By a huge margin this is the worst book in the series.  The big event from the last book, cleansing saidin, is barely mentioned, mostly due to the fact that much of the book takes place before the ending of the last book.  People complain when Sanderson does this in Towers of Midnight, yet seem to have blinders when it comes to Jordan twisting the timeline.  Anyways the entire cleansing event is massively underplayed despite reversing a core tenet of life for 3000 years ago.  Suddenly, male channelers will not go mad and one of the major purposes of the White Tower, hunting male channelers, is irrelevant, yet almost nothing changes.  Or maybe that is the point and the actions of Logain in the last book are supposed to be the first step towards change, not Rand’s cleansing.

If you really like these characters then this book is OK.  If however you like your characters to accomplish things, this book is absolutely awful.

Knife of Dreams: This is Jordan’s last book and a return to form.  This is easily the best book since the sixth, but my perception may be colored since this book finally wraps up many of the story arcs that have meandered along for the last four books.

I still think Perrin’s arc is terribly boring, but at least he finally rescues Faile.  At the same time, Elayne finally secures the throne and Mat finally escapes the Seanchan.  What’s crazy is we get more character development too since we get to see things like how Perrin finds himself estranged from his wife or his conduct while searching for his wife inadequate.  It is events that bring the depth of a character out, not sitting around talking or engaging in dull tasks like placating Aes Sedai and Tuon.

As for new things, well Semirhage’s ill-conceived attack on Rand is just another example of how incompetent the Forsaken are.  One wonders what the Dark One could accomplish if he recruited for proficiency over ambition.  I guess the reveal of Rand’s madness could be significant, but as a source of tension among characters it fizzled.

Most importantly, Egwene finally comes into her own growing into leadership at the same time as she is rendered powerless.  I think this is the one time I really felt on Egwene’s side as she engages in some old-fashioned civil disobedience to slowly undermine Elaida’s reign as Amyrlin.  It is well done, but unfortunately later events will render it largely moot.

I must mention the best scene in the book when Lews Therin seizes the One Power and massacres thousands of orcs I mean trollocs in a devastating show of force.  Lews Therin was a bad ass.