“Sometimes peace is no more than oppression in disguise.”
Synopsis: Itami Cho, the legendary Whispering Blade, has died… but death is not the end of her story. Brought back from the grave by a mysterious young boy named Ein, they set off together on a mission to recruit the greatest warriors the world has ever known. Their final mission? To kill the emperor. As this strange team faces insurmountable odds from without, will their secrets tear them apart? Or will their glory live on forever?
Rob J. Hayes really wrote a banger of a book with this one. Review done, it’s over, you can go home.
Kidding of course… but only somewhat.
First, a bit of an author intro: Hayes seems to self-publish quite prolifically (you can check out his webpage at http://www.robjhayes.co.uk/), has previously won an annual self-published fantasy blog-off (SPFBO) with Where Loyalties Lie, and was a Finalist in the last SPFBO as well with Never Die. I assure you: you’re in good hands here.
Never Die is an Asian-Mythology-Inspired fantasy novel, and samples from Japanese and Chinese mythology/pulp fiction in equal measures. This is a pleasant change from many of the European-inspired offerings one tends to find (though I have absolutely nothing against those!). One feels like they’ve been pulled into one of the coolest martial-arts action flicks ever, or an extremely well-crafted anime (someone, please, make an anime based on this novel). The setting is rich, even with a plot which tends to power through everything else; this is not a story full of quiet introspection. Hayes descriptive ability is excellent, and mitigates the fast pace of the novel. There is more than enough of this setting to sink one’s teeth into. Speaking of pace: Hayes organizes the story into fairly bite-sized chapters, which is nice for those who can only read intermittently; in my case, it just resulted in me repeatedly saying “oh, just one more chapter…” until the book was done. Note for writers: not all chapters need to be monstrously large.
The characters… oh, the characters! What Hayes has done exceptionally well with Never Die is to take characters who are absolutely, unquestionably, overused tropes/archetypes, and to make the reader NOT CARE ONE BIT ABOUT IT: Cho, the honorable repentant samurai; Zhihao, the bandit trickster; Chen, the invulnerable sumo; Bingwei Ma, the undefeated martial-arts master; and Ghost Echo, the mysterious assassin. All very, very archetypal and yet Hayes breathes so much life into them (both figuratively and literally I suppose) in such a short amount of time. The brisk pace of the story does not allow for extensive exposition, and so Hayes has become a master of condensed and effective prose. Through very brief conversations, the reader is left with a lasting impression of each.
I have a great deal of difficulty classifying this novel (yes, I know, it’s not necessary to begin with…). On the surface, this appears to be a “grimdark” novel… but it’s really not. Is it a revenge story? Yes, but it is more complex than that. Is it a heist/caper? To an extent, also yes; again though, this is only an aspect of the narrative. Like a chameleon, Hayes switches through genres in an eye-blink. This uncertainty pairs quite nicely with the narrative timeline…and that is all I will say on the subject. Read the novel and you’ll understand what I mean! Suffice it to say that Never Die manages to blend together several different types of stories quite seamlessly, and that is impressive. Doubly impressive is that Hayes boldly chose to deliver this in an entirely self-contained package. This is not a trilogy, or a quadralogy, or any sort of series. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end. Not everything needs to be a bloated epic!
Do you like John Wick? This is the kung-fu fantasy version of John Wick: driving action, interesting bad-ass characters, hints of deep mythology, and an unstoppable pace. You will not want to put this book down! If you’re looking for a tightly-written fantasy story with a fresh setting and a complete narrative, this is one you should not ignore.