Wesley Chu

Recent Reads: Dawson, Chu, and Schaff-Stump

Catching up on some of my recent reading…

Cover: PhasmaFirst up is Phasma [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound], by Delilah Dawson. I wanted this book for two reasons. The first is that Phasma has been criminally underutilized in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. So much wasted potential, and I wanted more about her character.

The second is because this is the first Star Wars book with my name in it. Sure, it’s in small print on the back book flap (author photo credit), but it’s a start!

From the publisher:

Deep inside the Battlecruiser Absolution, a captured Resistance spy endures brutal interrogation at the hands of a crimson-armored stormtrooper—Cardinal. But the information he desires has nothing to do with the Resistance or its covert operations against the First Order.

What the mysterious stormtrooper wants is Phasma’s past—and with it whatever long-buried scandal, treachery, or private demons he can wield against the hated rival who threatens his own power and privilege in the ranks of the First Order. His prisoner has what Cardinal so desperately seeks, but she won’t surrender it easily. As she wages a painstaking war of wills with her captor, bargaining for her life in exchange for every precious revelation, the spellbinding chronicle of the inscrutable Phasma unfolds. But this knowledge may prove more than just dangerous once Cardinal possesses it—and once his adversary unleashes the full measure of her fury.

What impressed me most about this one was the frame story, which was used to talk about Phasma’s background and history. We know Phasma ends up as a high-level villain, which means her story isn’t likely to be a happy one. How do you tell her story without getting overwhelmed by the darkness and the hopelessness?

You bring in an awesome Resistance spy named Vi. As interesting as it was to learn Phasma’s story, Vi and Cardinal ended up being my favorite characters. Cardinal is a nice contrast with Phasma, being of equal rank and genuinely believing in the purpose and ideas of the First Order.

It’s still a dark story, but there’s hope as well. Well done, Dawson!

Read an excerpt at Starwars.com.

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Cover: The Vessel of RaNext up is The Vessel of Ra [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound], by Catherine Schaff-Stump.

This is one of the twistier books I’ve read in a while, about magical families and their secrets and conflicts. Lucy Klaereon is bound to the demon Ra, destined to battle him for control. If she wins, she gains his service power. If she loses, she is to be killed. But Lucy’s family see her as weak, and nobody believes she’ll be able to win.

From the publisher:

While traveling in Venice in 1837, Lucy Klaereon, in order to save her family’s honor and her immortal soul, decides to commit suicide by drowning herself in the Grand Canal. Unfortunately for Lucy, she is rescued. Her rescuers believe they can separate her from the demon Ra, whom she is destined to fight because of an ancient family pact.

What Lucy does not know is that her rescuers have their own agenda. Paolo Borgia, head of a deposed magical family, wants to use Ra for his own purposes. Lucy is given an alternative, to separate herself from her demon and family, which she gladly welcomes. When she finds out the truth about Ra, Lucy’s purpose changes from not only freedom, but to righting an ancient wrong.

Octavia, Lucy’s older sister, is in pursuit. She has been trained since birth to kill Lucy when Lucy loses her battle with Ra.. At the ritual to free Ra, the two sisters clash with surprising results. Octavia is possessed by Ra and Lucy is determined to free her sister and keep Ra from reshaping the world in his image.

There is one small problem. Lucy has been murdered. However, she’s not about to let a small detail like that keep her from correcting her mistakes. Lucy will save Octavia, even if it kills her again.

There’s a lot going on in this book. Secrets and betrayals and love and death and more betrayals and several very power-hungry characters willing to do whatever it takes to increase their magic. There’s also courage and decency and hope. Every character comes with their own background and conflicts and stories. It makes for a very good and complex story.

Here’s an interview and excerpt where you can read more.

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The Rise of IO: CoverFinally, I read The Rise of IO [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound], by Wesley Chu.

This is a great follow-up to Chu’s books about Tao. (I reviewed The Lives of Tao here.) Whereas Tao was a highly skilled Quasing who had changed the course of human history through his hosts. the central Quasing in this book is…well, pretty much the anti-Tao. For example, one of IO’s more notable hosts was a general by the name of George Custer.

From the publisher:

Ella Patel – thief, con-artist and smuggler – is in the wrong place at the wrong time. One night, on the border of a demilitarized zone run by the body-swapping alien invaders, she happens upon a man and woman being chased by a group of assailants. The man freezes, leaving the woman to fight off five attackers at once, before succumbing. As she dies, to both Ella and the man’s surprise, the sparkling light that rises from the woman enters Ella, instead of the man. She soon realizes she’s been inhabited by Io, a low-ranking Quasing who was involved in some of the worst decisions in history. Now Ella must now help the alien presence to complete her mission and investigate a rash of murders in the border states that maintain the frail peace.

With the Prophus assigned to help her seemingly wanting to stab her in the back, and the enemy Genjix hunting her, Ella must also deal with Io’s annoying inferiority complex. To top it all off, Ella thinks the damn alien voice in her head is trying to get her killed. And if you can’t trust the voices in your head, who can you trust?

Like the earlier books, this is a fast-paced SF thriller with plenty of action, and I really enjoyed it. It’s nice to see women taking more of the stage in this one, and Ella is a great character: smart, streetwise, and practical.

There’s a pretty big plot thread left hanging at the end, so I assume (and hope) we’ll be getting more of IO soon. In the meantime, you can read the first chapter over at Tor.com.

Time Salvager, by Wesley Chu

Time SalvagerI received an advance copy of Wesley Chu‘s Time Salvager [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound] a while back. The book comes out on July 7, and is a rather dark time-travel adventure based in a grim 26th century. From the publisher’s description:

In a future when Earth is a toxic, abandoned world and humanity has spread into the outer solar system to survive, the tightly controlled use of time travel holds the key maintaining a fragile existence among the other planets and their moons. James Griffin-Mars is a chronman–a convicted criminal recruited for his unique psychological makeup to undertake the most dangerous job there is: missions into Earth’s past to recover resources and treasure without altering the timeline.

On a final mission that is to secure his retirement, James meets an intriguing woman from a previous century, scientist Elise Kim, who is fated to die during the destruction of an oceanic rig. Against his training and his common sense, James brings her back to the future with him, turning them both into fugitives. Remaining free means losing themselves in the wild and poisonous wastes of Earth, and discovering what hope may yet remain for humanity’s home world.

James Griffin-Mars is bitter, burnt out, and in some respects broken. The laws of time travel limit him to locations where his thefts won’t be noticed: ships and facilities doomed to destruction. Those same laws mean he’s constantly abandoning the people he meets, leaving them to die. Between that and the crumbling world of his home time, it’s no wonder Griffin-Mars is rather messed up.

As a result, for much of the book, he’s rather unlikeable, too. He can’t afford to be likeable, not if he’s going to do his job and survive. He’s also got a kind of paternalistic attitude toward his love interest, Elise Kim. In some ways it makes sense — she’s a stranger to his time, and he doesn’t exactly fill her in on how much danger she’s in. Not right away, at least. The book is very aware of how Griffin-Mars is broken, and part of the story arc is his struggle to rediscover his own humanity.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the book was seeing different slices of future Earth history, and Chu’s take on how technology and society evolve over the coming centuries. I was particularly fond of the character of Grace Priestly, creator of the Time Laws. Like most everyone else in the book, she can be cold and ruthless, but I appreciated her overall “Screw you I do what I want” attitude.

There’s not a lot of humor or warm fuzzy moments. There is plenty of action, some nifty ideas, and strong bleak-but-not-quite-dystopic worldbuilding. It’s a book with a lot of desperation, and it sets up an underdog-style against-all-odds fight for survival, both for our protagonist and for our species.

You can read the first chapter on the Tor website.

The Lives of Tao, by Wesley Chu

The Lives of Tao [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], is Wesley Chu’s first novel, and I kind of hate him a little bit for that. I picked up and started reading the book because I had met Wesley a while back, and he seemed like a pretty cool person. I finished reading it because it’s such a fun read.

Tao is basically a symbiotic life form, one who requires a human or animal host to survive on Earth. His people crash landed on our planet ages ago, and are now at war. Tao and the Prophus want to peacefully encourage humanity’s evolution until our technology is advanced enough to help them get home. The Genjix are believed to have similar goals … minus the “peacefully” part.

After a mission gone wrong results in the death of Tao’s human host, he’s forced into the body of an unambitious, insecure IT technician named Roen. This is the time, when he’s stuck in an untrained host, that Tao is most vulnerable. He has to keep Roen alive long enough to get him trained, and eventually to try to figure out what the Genjix are really up to this time.

Like I said, the book is a lot of fun. Tao is a great character, one who has existed in some of the greatest hosts in human history. (Genghis Khan, for example.) Tao tells Roen dream-stories about some of his past lives at the start of each chapter, which gives him (and us) the background of both Tao and his people.

Tao has tons of experience and knowledge, but upgrading Roen to superspy status isn’t as easy as simply plugging him in. There’s plenty of banter, entertaining training scenes, lots of action, and characters you want to keep reading about.

The only real complaint I have isn’t about the writing so much as it is one of the tropes Chu uses in the book. He’s created a world in which many of the wars and tragedies of human history were actually engineered by the Genjix. While it makes sense in the context of the book, I’ve never liked that particular trope, since it would seem to excuse us for our own atrocities. I know it’s fiction, but it still bugs me. Humans are capable of amazing things. We’re also capable of horrible, evil things. Pretending otherwise feels like lying about human nature.

Like I said, it’s a personal peeve.

There’s a twist in the ending that I saw coming pretty early on, but overall, it’s a good ending, one that wraps up the events of this book while making it clear there’s more to come in the series.

You can read an excerpt of the book at Tor.com. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, The Deaths of Tao.

Jim C. Hines