Never Die by Rob J Hayes

(8.7/10) A story of vengeance and honor, delivered with the style and speed of an expert katana slash.

This story is pure adrenaline. From the very first line through its twisty conclusion, Never Die showcases Rob Hayes’ talent in creating interesting and memorable characters while placing them in ever-escalating life-or-death situations. This is a story of vengeance and honor, delivered with the style and speed of an expert katana slash. It incorporates elements of Japanese mythology, including various species of yokai (spirit monsters), death gods, masters of qi, and resurrection, to name but a few. It explores what it means to be a warrior, and its tolls on the human psyche. It’s not a long book, yet it packs in an incredible amount of content told at a blistering pace. Simply put, this is one of the most fun and action-packed stand-alone books I’ve read.

One of the more impressive feats that Hayes pulls off is how he was able to flesh out his characters so quickly, using so few pages. I felt like I knew these characters well enough to guess what they would say or how they would react in upcoming situations. The friendships and relationships felt real and earned, and the dialogue was both insightful and humorous. Each character was flawed but had a strong and unique voice in the story: there was the oath-breaking but skilled warrior, a cowardly bandit with confidence issues, an iron-skinned master who drowns his anonymity with wine, an undefeated martial artist who has never left home, an altruistic leper who is knocking on death’s door, and a demonic child on a singular quest of vengeance. The child gathers these great warriors from around the crumbling Empire with a mission to assassinate a man who may be impossible to access, all while being plagued by nightmarish spirits every step of the way.

The story is simple in its nature – the first half of the story is dedicated to gathering the party, and the back half concentrates on the mission of vengeance – yet the book never wavers in its pace or level of excitement. The battles are numerous and increasingly dangerous, and there are plenty of curious mysteries that help drive the story forward. I have little knowledge of Japanese lore, so reading this book on the Kindle app was a great help. The app allowed me to highlight and research many of the Japanese words scattered throughout the story (such as jikininki, inugami, and kiyohime) so I recommend this method to learn more about how these fables originated. Even some of the most bizarre and eccentric occurrences were all rooted in Japanese history, and Hayes did a fine job researching and integrating some truly horrifying adversaries to throw at our cadre of heroes.  

There were a couple of quibbles I had after one of the big final twists was revealed, as I questioned some contradictions in the narrative that didn’t sit entirely well with me. If the audience were privy to this knowledge at the beginning of the story, I would wonder why certain events played out as they did. Still, the impact of this reveal resulted in a powerful and surprising ending that outweighed any of its detriments, and I appreciated what the author was aiming for.

Never Die is like an anime video game come to life, in book form. Therefore, it might not be for everyone. But if that description intrigues you in the least, you owe it to yourself to dive in, head-first. I hope to see more stories from Hayes that is set in this fantasy Far East setting, as it feels abundant with fresh storytelling opportunities. As a fan of this story as well as Hayes’ pirate-themed duology “Best Laid Plains,” I can’t wait to see what Hayes has in store for us next.

Adam Weller - 8.8/10

I was lucky enough to receive an ARC of Rob’s newest novel Never Die, which was, in fact, the first book of his I have read. I now plan on digging in to his back catalogue, as he is truly a master craftsman, and a prolific one at that.

Never Die is the story of five undead, re-animated heroes, (or in some cases anti-heroes) that have been given a second chance at life by an eight-year-old Necromancer in order to defeat an evil emperor. It follows the five great warriors: Whispering Blade, The Emerald Wind, Iron Gut, Ghost Echo, and Bingwei Ma, as they come to terms with having died, been resurrected, and then having been forced to join young Ein on a gruelling and seemingly impossible task, or return to death.

While not a comedy per se, there is a great deal of situational humor in the book. In a sense, it’s a road story, in which our five protagonists, each with very different back stories and values are forced into an unsteady alliance by a mysterious and disturbing child with little understanding of why their quest exists and why they were chosen. Much of the humor comes from Zhihao Cheng, The Emerald Wind, who is a lecherous cretin with a heart of gold. Imagine a Samurai Shrek and we’re basically there. Zhihao’s tumultuous relationship with Itami Cho, The Whispering Blade is well written and there are some wonderful character moments that encapsulate the honourable Cho’s warming to Zhihao as the novel progresses. There are also many endearingly written moments between Cho and Ein, which really paint the portrait of her as a sympathetic character and the rock of the group.

Clearly, Hayes did his research, as there were many elements of classic Kurosawa films, a great deal of anime-inspired outrageousness, and even some video game influenced action. Many of the chapters that introduce a new character to the gang of misfits begin with a Mortal Kombat style battle, and Hayes’ descriptions of the fights are gloriously choreographed, and a tremendous amount of fun to read.

I have made reference in an article I co- wrote about this book to M. Night Shyamalan’s film “The Sixth Sense”, and it was not only due to the obvious “creepy kid” factor. Rob Hayes has written this book with the intention to surprise, with plot twists around every corner, and a guarantee that when you reach the conclusion you will want to re-read it to look for signs of its meaning. 

Without spoiling anything, I will say that a book that deals with the spiritual realm always allows for great potential to re-visit the world, and while it seems as though Rob intended Never Die to stand alone, the return of these engaging characters and well fleshed out setting would be extremely welcome. One of the best I’ve read in 2018 and I look forward to a great deal more from Mr. Hayes.

9.2/10 - Michael Gruneir

I received an uncorrected proof copy of Never Die in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to Rob J. Hayes for the opportunity.

The tale begins with an assault on Kaishi City. The notorious bandit Flaming Fist is searching for his missing daughter and will literally burn, and his accompanying rebel army will destroy anyone in his path until he has found her. On the opposite side of this deadly and bloody ruckus, we are introduced to Whispering Blade (Itami Cho) who has taken an oath amongst her comrades to protect the city. She is one of the finest warriors in Hosa, and she carries two swords, one of which she is forbidden to draw. After certain complications, the character who seems like she will be the books main protagonist from the beginning is brutally murdered in typical Hayes fashion. Nothing but darkness remains for her now... Unless there happens to be a creepy ten-year-old, scarf-wearing, dark-eyed child around who is somehow able to return heroes from death. As long as they agree to help him on an assassination mission that has been assigned to him by a God of Death, of course.   

Never Die was an interesting read and is unique in the dark fantasy scene. Hayes, a British author, has created an expansive, impressive and engrossing fantasy world which is inspired by Japanese/ Oriental history and folklore. It features a whole plethora of creatures and otherworldly beings such as yokai, jikininki, oni, etc... The descriptions of these monstrosities are colourful and heightened by Hayes' prose but I did take to Google occasionally to review what they were recorded as originally in Oriental mythology and it did add layers to my experience. This mid-length novel features some elements of Hayes' tinged grimdark but it is closer to the wire-fu movies (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) oriental history cinema (Red Cliff, Once Upon a Time in China) in tone, intertwined with an almost perfect mix of humour, likeable main characters and camaraderie. These players include a bandit, a leper, a wushu master, and a gentleman who would never lose at sumo-wrestling. 

I had a genuinely positive time throughout the majority of this book, however, for about 20% I was worried if it was going to be too formulaic with the team walking, fighting a demon, meeting someone to have a dual with, repeat - which did happen a couple of times. A few of the set-pieces are as if they've been taken from a level of Mortal Kombat, an end of act fight from Streets of Rage, a boss fight from The Legend of Zelda, and colourful fight scenes straight out of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It is an interesting mix. Although all of the above are frequent throughout, Hayes doesn't forget how to write battles, sieges, and final confrontations. 

Hayes writes stunning culminations when all the weaved threads combine and the final piece is presented. I do not believe that anything written in his books is by coincidence. The ending was intense and great. The pinnacles of the showdowns were presented during this period. The characters were deep for a book of sub 300 pages and the relationships they created and their banter was marvellous. Hayes often has twists in his tales and in Never Die there were two big reveals. I guessed the first one at about 60% - the second I had no idea about and it staggered me like a punch from the Master of the Sun Valley's would. Hayes is releasing books at a remarkable rate and I've yet to find a book of his that I haven't enjoyed. Keep it up, Sir.

8/10 - James Tivendale

Reviews by and Michael Gruneir and James Tivendale

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