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, likable 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.