The Rise of Io – Wesley Chu

Twenty five years have passed since the events of the Tao trilogy, but that is only a moment in the centuries-long alien civil war raging on earth between the Prophus (Betrayers) and the Genjix. What has changed is that human beings now know that Quasing exist and live symbiotic relationships with their hosts. The situation remains precarious for the Prophus, particularly with the Genjix moving in on India, one of the few remaining unaligned countries. One of the zones of activity is a curious piece of construction that the Genjix are working hard to hide, a facility in a slum called Crate Town in Gujarat near the border with Pakistan.

Investigation of the facility and personal vengeance lead Io’s host, Emily, to Crate Town where she is killed. Released from the dead body, Io rejects occupying the designated second and instead joins with Ella, a con-artist resident of Crate Town who had leaped to defend Emily. What unfolds is a small story contained to the goings on with this particular facility, but with deadly consequences for everyone involved.

As usual with Chu’s work, The Rise of Io, features intrigue and plenty of martial art’s action, but it was the mix of character conflicts that made it excellent. The surface level conflict is the ongoing investigation and infiltration of the Genjix facility, but it was the additional conflicts that made it special.

First, there is the tension between Ella and Io. Unlike the relationship between Roen and Tao in the original series, Ella is adamantly opposed to Io, considering the Quasing an unwelcome intruder–and the Prophus a possible source of revenue, at best. This is not because Ella is bad. In fact, she is well liked and willing to put herself at risk to do the right thing. Ella is simply unused to partnership since her father left and her mother was killed by the Genjix in the war, and she is therefore slow to trust. Despite the potential advantages of human-Quasing partnerships that have been revealed elsewhere in this series, Ella never comes to trust Io.

Second, on the other side of the equation, is Shura, a Genjix assassin deprived of her family’s inheritance. Shura is ruthless, but entirely at the whims of Genjix hierarchy, and dispatched to India to oversee this vital construction project under the supervision of her mortal enemy Rurik.

Finally, there is the conflict between Io and the rest of the Quasing. In the current conflict, Io is low-ranking, unskilled at manipulating humans, and most notable for catastrophic failures. But that was not always the case. Once, Io ranked among the most influential of all Quasing, and this change has made Io bitter and dissatisfied with the current arrangement. The problem, however, is that Quasing cannot live without humans, leaving Ella in the middle.

The Rise of Io is an excellent self-contained story that begins and ends in media res, more or less. Nothing is really resolved in the book, and while it can be read as a standalone novel, it builds on expectations and assumptions for the world that are created in the Tao trilogy. In sum, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, but the character conflicts, particularly those involving Io, will be more meaningful with that background.


I am now reading Charles Mann’s 1493, a global history of the world created by the Columbian exchange. So far it is an interesting read about the emergence of what he calls the “homogenocene” era of the globalized world.

Fantasy Series- Recommendations

I believe there is a lot of great fantasy books in the world today. As a result I have collected a bunch of my favorites, with this representing the first of two posts. Here are my favorite series, though, in one case, I only like the first book. There are lots of other good books out there (one of my hobby-horses), and these absolutely represent my tastes more than any sort of objective criterion. There are also other series that I think are great and/or read with zeal, and still others that I am sure would appear on many lists of this sort–for instance, Discworld, which I think is merely OK. I have a long to-read list already compiled, but if there are suggestions I will gladly take them.

The Lord of the Rings [plus The Hobbit and The Silmarillion], JRR Tolkien

In many ways this is the Ur-series for the Western fantasy canon, though Tolkien himself was drawing on the Ring Cycle, Beowulf, and a host of other mythological and Romantic influences. Tolkien also set for invention high for all nerds (said affectionately) who built worlds for games, books, or fun. Call them excruciatingly boring, what with the large number of walks taken, and suffering from the drawbacks of the genre such as unnecessary descriptions of stew, there is quite a bit going on in these series. I am of the opinion that recent years have seen a literary-ization of genre fiction that has linked some of the ideas present in the past books with a craft not before seen, but I still love Tolkien for what it was. The world and the series has plenty of issues, including at times blatantly racist overtones and the general (but not complete) absence of strong female characters, but it does have a lot to give back. I also believe that it offers a better entry into this sort of writing for kids than do some of the more complex modern books.

Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan (completed by Brandon Sanderson)

Another series that I have a soft-spot for having starting reading it in elementary school. It too suffers from a lot of flaws, but also did a lot to drive the genre forward, including that Jordan helped launch the careers of other fantasy authors such as the fellow coming up next on this list. The Wheel of Time can be tropetastic, but that is the nature of the beast, particularly in a genre which usually has the paradigm of a few intrepid individuals holding the darkness at bay, and suffers for being such a sprawling epic. The same sprawl meant that things changed quite dramatically from early on, for natural reasons, for inexplicable reasons when he was still feeling things out, and perhaps for reasons whispered about on internet fan forums. In that way, The Wheel of Time was one of the earliest book series to generate dedicated online communities–and, sadly, one of the reasons for the perpetual fears over authors dying without finishing the books. I haven’t really said anything about the series itself, but I do like a lot of the characters, and it was one of the early series to play with gender dynamics in that the most powerful force in the land are women.

The Song of Ice and Fire, George RR Martin

Or, as it is known, Game of Thrones. Ultimately, a re-envisioning of the War of the Roses in a medieval fantasy world where, as they say, Winter is Coming. The environment of the series flips between long summers and brutally long winters where there is a chance of the White Walkers, and perhaps cold gods awakening. There is a core struggle for the heroes to save the world from utter oblivion, whether using magic swords, blood, or dragons, but Martin’s protagonists are usually too busy playing politics and pretending to be heroes to actually get around to do anything about the encroaching doom. Actually trying to be a hero is the fastest way to die. He has said that there is going to be a bittersweet ending, so we assume that we will see spring, but the question is how will people put aside their squabbles long enough to fight back.

Kingkiller Chronicles, Pat Rothfuss

This is my favorite series right now, though I have heard several viscerally negative reviews of it. The biggest determinant, I think, is how much a reader likes the main character, Kvothe, because this series very much is about him. Functionally, the series is a story within a story, with Kvothe’s life, which has become the stuff of legend, is being narrated over the course of three days. Each day is a book, and the driving question behind the story is how did the legendary individual, whose exploits are known the world over, become an impotent innkeeper in a small town in the middle of nowhere. Rothfuss’ writing is (in my opinion) beautiful, and I also endorse The Small Regard For Silent Things, a novella written about one of the side characters in the main series.

Dune, Frank Herbert

I nearly put Dune on my list of standalone recommendations because I found the first book to be such a revelation and the subsequent books to be such disappointments. Herbert sets up a galactic civil war between the Baron Harkonnen, supported by the Emperor, and House Atreides, which gets trapped on the desert world of Dune. The story is simultaneously intimate and cosmic in scale, with a messianic main character who may accidentally set in motion a military-religious tsunami that will overwhelm the galaxy.

Tao x3, Wesley Chu

[Lives, Deaths, Afterlives]. Chu’s three book Tao series is an action-romp where the alien Tao and his host Roen Tam try to save the world (and his family) from being turned into a warm primordial soup. I reviewed the first book in the series, and really enjoyed all three. There were times that I thought the later books were sloppier than the first and a little too on the nose about some contemporary issues, but those were slight irritations to what is an incredibly fun set of books that was really easy to blow through.

Mistborn, Brandon Sanderson

When I recommend a Sanderson series, this is the one, in part because it is just a trilogy. There are a lot of things that Sanderson does to tie his entire oeuvre together as part of the larger “Cosmere,” but what is important for this trilogy is that for most people the world consists of endless drudgery, toiling away in factories and farms in a landscape where both urban and rural features are covered in soot, not unlike an extreme version of the industrial revolution. There is also a strict hierarchy between the nobility, who are tall and more athletic and blessed with magic, and the masses, who are stouter, slower, and duller. The entire system is rigidly enforced by the Emperor, who is also the most powerful magic user, and his servants. Yet, Kelsier, a thief, is convinced that he can bring down the Emperor and takes his friends, including the urchin Vin, along for the ride. Except, as you learn, the Emperor is also a lynchpin that holds the system together and the changes were not just arbitrary. Sanderson is particularly known for his magic systems, which, in this case, involves the ingestion and consumption (and other uses) of different metals, each of which corresponds to a particular ability.

The Stormlight Archive, Brandon Sanderson

Tentatively placed here, if you are a reader who likes Sanderson’s other books and Robert Jordan, read this. Sanderson is planning the series more than Jordan did, but his writing is similar and this is in many ways his equivalent set of tomes.

Old Man’s War, John Scalzi

Technically OMW is the first book in a series, so it is included here. Scalzi’s military science fiction series is set in a future where most people on earth live entirely recognizable lives. However, to solve the third-world population crunch, they are allowed to colonize distant planets–no first-worlders need apply. That is, until you get old. Science allows the mapping of minds onto new, genetically enhanced bodies, so the military has taken to recruiting people with an entire lifetime’s experience, giving them enhanced bodies, and sending them off to fight against alien races. Survivors get set up with a new, un-enhanced body and a position in a colony. Each of the books set in the world, including the two collections of serialized stories that I haven’t yet read, are set in this universe, but told from a different point of view. They are well thought out, snappily-written, and action-packed, as one would expect from Scalzi’s work, and well-worth reading.

Sometime later this week I hope to post the list of stand-alone novels in these genres that I really enjoy. In the meantime, I’d be interested to know what you think I am missing.

July 2015 Reading Recap

I read a lot again in July, quickly falling back into old habits of spending muggy evenings just reading and, for most of the month, felt pretty well-balanced as a result. Part of the reason I was able to read so much was that, for the first time in a while, I read a significant amount of science fiction and fantasy and fewer literary fiction novels. In many ways the situation gave me flashbacks to years gone by.

Literary Fiction
Romance of the Three Kingdoms v.1, Luo Guanzhong
Reading this, the first of two volumes of the medieval Chinese epic that retold the dissolution of the Han Dynasty around 200 CE. The translation I used is quite dated and the romance is particularly stilted at times, with action usually being said to happen rather than narrated. Nevertheless, the story itself is engaging, as the it narrates the intrigues between the decadent house of Wu in the south, the wily and ruthless Cao Cao of Wei, and the noble and righteous Liu Bei of Shu. I had fond memories of the video game Dynasty Warriors as I was reading, but this is not a book I would necessarily recommend for anyone who is not already invested in the endeavor.

The Fortune of War, Patrick O’Brian
The continuing adventures of Aubrey and Maturin take them to Boston at the outset of The War of 1812 and includes the naval duel between the H.M.S. Shannon and U.S.S. Chesapeake. The bulk of this story takes place with the two men scheming to escape captivity after their capture. The writing of this book is on the upper end of O’Brian’s novels thus far, but it still tends to bog down when he is not writing about sailing. I didn’t find this arc nearly as tedious as the ones involving life back home in England, but it was still not my favorite. Still, I appreciate O’Brian’s dedication to particular types of historical accuracy.

The Emperor’s Tomb, Joseph Roth
This novel continues the story of the Trotta family in Austria that was begun by The Radetsky March, though the protagonists of the two share little beyond their name. This story uses World War One as a fulcrum and tells of the the declining fortune of the Trottas after the war as all their ventures fail. However, the story suffers from many of the moralistic problems of the the former novel without the charm. In particular, Roth goes out of his way to emphasize the averageness of the the Trotta family in the first, showing them to be swept along by forces entirely beyond their control even while they make decisions. In this one there are many of the issues, but without the same setup. The result is that within this particular narrative the characters, none of whom are particularly nice or endearing, simply try ineffectually and fail. Perhaps this particular feature of the Trotta family is meant to carry over from one story to the next, but one would expect there to be some reminder if that was the case. The result is a dreary, dull read and not a particularly good story, though the crushing weight of the environmental factors remain constant in both.

Fantasy and Science Fiction
Fool Moon, Jim Butcher
The second book of the Dresden Files novels continues the adventures of the Wizard/Private Eye Harry Dresden. As one may guess by the campy title, this on involves were-wolves. I’m not yet sure how I feel about the series. The novels are pulpy and campy, but addictive. The first two also have the feel of an author playing around, honing a craft, and not yet with a larger story arc in mind. I will read at least one more, but, after that, who knows.

The Rebirths of Tao, Wesley Chu
Speaking of addictive, this The Rebirths of Tao concludes this trilogy that began with the Lives of Tao. True to form, each installment adds layers, both to the narrative and the global conflict that threatens the existence of the human race. Chu’s writing remains snappy, clever, fast-paced, and, above all, fun, but just wasn’t as tight as in the previous two novels. Nevertheless, Rebirths is a fitting conclusion to the series.

Foundation, Isaac Asimov
I am somewhat ashamed how long it took me to read Foundation, a classic text in the genre. This is the story of the decline and fall of a galactic empire, which has stood for millennia. A scholar named Hari Seldon has perfected “Psychological History,” which is the history of the future as dictated by economic and sociological principles. Despite the imperial court being convinced of its invincibility, Seldon has become convinced of that the empire will collapse and be followed by thirty thousand years of barbarism–but the time can be reduced to one thousand, if he is allowed to create a galactic encyclopedia on a distant world. The encyclopedia itself is a feint, but Seldon has predicted that the world will restore civilization, so long as they do not come to rely on individual heroism. There is a general lack of strong narrative arc or dynamic characters, but the ideas in this book are provocative and worth thinking about, even though the specific technology (nuclear) is a product of its own age.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, Douglas Adams
Another book that I meant to have read some time ago, started once, and just never got back to. Adams had some wonderful backs and forths and observations, but his style of witty, clever nonsense that sometimes defies any sort of narrative sense just isn’t really my thing, at least not anymore. I may read the second book in the series for completion’s sake, but I didn’t like DGHDA as much as a lot of more recent books or Hitchhiker’s Guide. The preoccupation with antiquated computers also seemed stilted.

The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu
Reviewed here, Liu’s first novel in his epic fantasy trilogy is a soaring epic modeled on Chinese epic rather than western quest stories. I loved this book and it was pretty easily my favorite read of the month.

Palmyra and its Empire Richard Stoneman
A somewhat dated book that I suspect I read once many years ago, I picked this one up again because of the disappointing news coming out of Palmyra. As a BMCR reviewer put it, this book combines relatively popular history narratives about Zenobia with much denser narrative and argumentation about Palmyra and its role in the Roman frontier. The feeling that I had read the book before took some of the wind out of my sails and I don’t find myself quite as intrigued by Roman history as I once did, but this is still a worthwhile read.

The Bagel Maria Balinska
Reviewed here, Balinska traces the history of the bagel from the fork that divided the bread from its Christian counterpart in medieval Poland, through its immigration to America as a ethnic Jewish food, its role in the labor movement around the turn of the century, and finally through its conquest of America as a ubiquitous breakfast food. There is a larger story than the narrow one Balinska tells in the second half of the book, but the simplistic story works well enough and should I ever find myself teaching US History for my supper, this is a book that I will use in my teaching.

March Reading Recap

I finished three books last month, another very busy stretch in a particularly busy semester. I only finished the third because of spring break.

Exile and the Kingdom, Albert Camus
Five short stories by Camus, none of which share characters, form, or narrative structure, but all of which are linked by the anxieties of modern man. With one main exception, each story deals with the interaction between people and society, but from the margins. “The Adulterous Woman” escapes her cold marriage in the dark of night in order to experience the desert, “The Artist at Work” seeks refuge from the press of admirers and friends, and the schoolteacher in “The Guest” finds himself at odds with both the state and the rebels when he tries to express humanity. The stories were engaging, thoughtful, and melancholy, but if you like Camus they are worth reading. The settings are themselves antiquated, but the messages all-too relevant.

The Baron in the Trees, Italo Calvino
Cosimo Piuvasco, heir to the Barony of Rondo, was twelve when he last set foot on ground. He rebels against the rule of his parents and the culinary monstrosities prepared by his sister and takes to the trees, where he lives out his life, corresponding with intellectuals, protecting the fields, hunting, and carrying on love affairs. The story is told through the narration of Cosimo’s younger brother, who relays the curiosities of his brother’s existence. Calvino weaves in elements of Aristophanes’ Clouds, and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and a myriad of other adventure tales in order to relate this fanciful story of arboreal existence. This is a delightfully whimsical story that didn’t contain the weight or gravitas of a lot of other books, but I enjoyed it all the more for it. The Baron in the Trees was probably my favorite read of the month simply because it was just so much fun to read.

The Deaths of Tao, Wesley Chu
The second book in Chu’s series, of which I reviewed the first book, The Lives of Tao, here. Chu keeps most of the trademark elements that made the first one so much fun to read, including the pacing and the fight scenes, but complicates the story through structure, content, and characters. The story is set several years past the events of The Lives of Tao and it is no longer the fairly straightforward hero’s journey archetypal story since, for the most part, the heroes have come of age and are now down to the mature task of saving the world…and, of course, things aren’t going particularly well on that front. The Gengix have now taken to conducting experiments in order to make life on earth conducive to their needs, as well as becoming ever less subtle in their methods. I preferred the first book, I think, not because it was worse–by most measures it was a better more sophisticated story–but because it was not as refreshing as the first one was. I still enjoyed it a great deal and look forward to the conclusion of the trilogy.

Since March ended, I read a collection of stories called The Professor and the Siren by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. Next up is Drew Magary’s preapocalytic novel The Postmortal.

November 2014 Reading Recap

I am in disbelief that December is upon us. For a variety of reasons, some of which aren’t even related to my dissertation, life has gotten v. hectic, but here’s a quick rundown of my November reading.

Bridge on the Drina – Ivo Andric

Andric’s masterpiece (one of the trilogy for which he won the Nobel Prize) is a story about the onrush of modernity in a small Balkan town. The town is rural, the inhabitants in the the various hamlets vaguely aware of the goings on in the world at large–particularly when the time comes to pay dues to the Ottomans. Then a Vizier orders the construction of the eponymous bridge. The town grew up around the bridge, expanding with time and subjected to the pressures modernity up to the first World War, including rebellion, occupation, war, railroads, and nationalism. The one constant is the bridge.

The book is of the high-literary variety and drags at times, but also has a penchant for evocative imagery, including a gruesomely graphic description of a man who gets impaled on a spike and suffers for a long time. I came away with an active interest in something like this not happening to me–as opposed than the standard disinterest in painful punishment.

The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho

A hero’s journey story that caused my brother to express disbelief when I told him I hadn’t already read it. Santiago is a young Andalusian shepherd who is encouraged to follow his dreams and go to the Pyramids in Egypt in order to unlock his Personal Legend. Along the way he meets obstacles, some of which are pleasant, that threaten his journey. He stays on course and writes his own legend. The story is simplistic in a lot of ways, but that doesn’t invalidate the points made. I liked but didn’t love the book, but could see including it in a list of books read to fairly young children, ones who should be reminded that there is a time to wander and that personal legends are there to be written, chased, and that a decent portion of luck is about putting oneself out there. Then again, we can all use that reminder sometimes.

The Lives of Tao – Wesley Chu

Reviewed here, The Lives of Tao is a fun book about an unlikely hero who gets inhabited by a millenia-old alien named Tao who once helped make Genghis Khan into a world-conqueror. Ultimately, it is an alt-history action-adventure, martial arts story. Admittedly, I am a sucker for stories about the hero’s journey and while there were certain elements of the story that I found youthful and might have found problematic in other books, I had enough fun reading The Lives of Tao that that sensation overrode any problems I had. It was my favorite read for the month.

Noted above, my life is crazy right now and I haven’t started a new book yet, but I’ve been carrying around Kingsley Amis’ The Alteration, so that will probably be the next one I read.

The Lives of Tao, Wesley Chu

Roen Tam eats too much, drinks too much, and works too much because he is incapable of telling his boss ‘no.’ Because he has a cat and rent, you see. He hasn’t been on a date in years and compensates for the lack of a social life by going to nightclubs that he hates.

Tao is a Quasing, a brilliant, amoeba-like alien race that crash-landed on Earth hundreds of millions of years ago. Quasing can’t tolerate Earth’s atmosphere and survive by forming symbiotic relationships with other animals, including humans, through which they work with the hope of, someday, returning to their home planet. They and their hosts have been responsible for both some of the greatest achievements and worst catastrophes in human history. Of course, the Quasing are also engulfed in a centuries-long civil war between the Prophus (betrayers) who want to return home without destroying the human race and the Genjix who have no such scruples.

When a mission goes wrong and Tao’s host pays the ultimate price, he needs a new host and fast. Roen, drunk, happens to be available. Prophus can’t afford for one of its best operatives to be on the sidelines at this critical moment and it is up to Tao to turn Roen into a hero capable of saving the world, fast.

The Lives of Tao is a fast-paced action story that follows a fairly traditional narrative arc, an unlikely hero, training montages, and exciting fight-scene climaxes. Before reading the book I had heard that Chu used his experience as a martial-artist and stuntman to write particularly excellent fight scenes, and the book lived up to the hype. In particular, I appreciated how each of the different Quasing characters had a distinct personality, almost more so than the human characters did, which is apropos given their lifespans. Tao, for instance, is cynical and sarcastic, but is also an optimistic dreamer who has learned from his numerous mistakes.

I usually dislike this sort of alternative explanations for historical events, but Chu pulled it off for several reasons. First, the explanations were not restricted to isolated events, but included broad developments, including those that predated human existence. Second, while the relationships underpin how ignorant and dim-witted humans are, it is still fundamentally a symbiotic relationship where the humans have agency and have their own natural abilities enhanced, the hero drawn out from within, rather than the person being taken over or undermined by the “superior” being. The Quasing simply provide superior pattern skills and aeons of experience.

The Lives of Tao is a tremendously fun read, complete with action, humor, romance, and a coming of age story starring a thirty-something year old man and an impossibly old mentor. Given the themes in the book, particularly with a clear dichotomy between the good guys and bad guys and the moral gray area with which only the heroes wrestle, and the energetic pacing, it is not a surprise that The Lives of Tao won a young adult fiction award.

I look forward to reading Chu’s sequel, The Deaths of Tao, and, in the meantime, recommend this book to anyone who likes science fiction, fantasy, or just a fun action story.