SPFBO: Never Die by Rob J. Hayes

Series: The Mortal Techniques #1Rating: 7.25/10
Date of Publishing: January 29th 2019Genre: fantasy
Publisher: Self-PublishedNumber of Pages: 274

 

Blurb

Samurai, shinigami, vengeful spirits, and an impossible quest.

Itami Cho has earned the name Whispering Blade. She is a Shintei warrior, sworn to the path of oaths and honour. But keeping her oaths has always been more difficult than taking them. When Flaming Fist and his bandits attack the city of Kaishi, Itami swears one last oath: she will protect the city and its people at any cost.

Ein has spent his life dreaming of being a hero, and now the God of Death has given him a chance. The Reaper has set him an impossible quest: an eight-year-old boy sent to stop an immortal Emperor.

 

Belle’s Review – 6.5/10

I feel quite conflicted about this book. While it is well-written and engaging, it ultimately didn’t work for me. 

I found it hard to connect with any of the characters, especially Ein, with his sulking “because I said so!” attitude. The variety of personalities was interesting though, and I did enjoy learning about their various skills and backstories, although I wanted to know more about WHY they were on the quest much sooner in the book. Waiting so long for any kind of context took some of the satisfaction out of the reveal for me. 

I struggled a lot with the pacing of the book. It’s not that often I find myself most of the way through and the whole band hasn’t been collected yet, and it left me wondering when the interesting stuff was going to happen. Once they are all together, though, it becomes a much more interesting story and I really enjoyed the last 20% or so of the book as the action ramped up and explanations started to flow. 

The prose was very enjoyable throughout, and Hayes has a definite skill in how he paints a scene, and it was great to see a different aspect of Asian culture, one that I am certainly not familiar with. I do wish there had been a chance for more worldbuilding – we learn next to nothing about the lands they’re travelling through, and that made it hard for me to be invested in murdering the evil emperor. There’s also no exploration about how the various characters obtained their magic skills, or even really how they work. 

If you don’t mind a slightly more meandering tale, this is definitely well worth a read, but it is not a style of story that I enjoy. That said, I’ll be keeping an eye out for the next thing he releases.


Jen’s Review – 8/10

Ein is bringing back his heroes to fulfill his quest to kill the Emperor of Ten Kings, Henan WuLong. It’s a way more complicated undertaking than you’d think because these heroes, have to die first.

***

This was a good solid read. Lots of action, some really cool fantasy elements and great fight scenes. The story while seemingly straightforward is fast-paced and very entertaining, with a couple of small surprises along the way.

The first half is gathering the team. It’s fun. The team members have great names like The Whispering Blade, The Emerald Wind, Iron Gut Chen, etc.. The name, highlighting their talent or magic and we get to see each potential member specialized skills as they are “killed” and “recruited” to the team.

The story is maybe a touch on the dark side – a young boy messily sewing closed the dead’s wounds, so he can bring the body back to life to fight for him; it’s really kind of twisted when you think about. If just the oath is not enough to keep his chosen heroes on course- as a little extra motivation, Ein has bound them to himself. Meaning until their quest is complete, they can’t stray too far from him or they will return to the dead.

This has a nice Asian flair, with bits of mythology/folktales, the heroes even have a Legend of the Condor’s vibe. It’s kind of like Wuxia-light (saying this as someone who has read very little in the genre) but you get a good taste of the genre without it feeling overly complicated with the terms or fancy named fighting moves, and it makes a great primer if you are interested in dipping your foot in the pool but aren’t sure where to start or if it is even going to be your style.

A minor downside (and mostly personal preference) for me, was the detachment I had towards the characters. I wished for more depth to them – something, anything, to give me a reason to root for them.

Outside of Daiyu – The Art of War (who was the strategist to the Iron Prince) I didn’t have a lot of sympathy for any of the main group, and felt no urgency or care when they were in battle that they may die (again). With Daiyu, there was an obvious closeness to the Prince that gave me that little extra reason to like her and root for her (plus, her skill/magic was freaking cool, and one of my favourite spots in the book). But with the others, it just wasn’t there. I don’t know if that’s because they’d been dead and in the back of my head, I couldn’t get past that or if it was just that there was nothing to connect me to them. In hindsight, I also wondered if my view of the characters would have been different, if I hadn’t read the writing on the wall about the one reveal.

There is no denying this was a great book, even with that minor complaint on my part, the crisp writing, quick pace, and fun battles will make this one a hit for a lot of people.

This author has been on my radar for awhile and I’m looking forward to checking out his other work.


Nick’s Review – 9/10

Never Die surrounds the exploits of an enigmatic boy named Ein who was murdered years ago and is now on a mission from the god of death to kill the Emperor of Ten Kings. We don’t know any of the backstory of Ein or why the emperor is his target, but what we do know is that in order to achieve this murderous task, he must recruit four heroes or champions to assist him in defeating this seemingly unconquerable figure. Recruiting these heroes does come with a big catch, you see they have to die first so that they can be bound to him. One by one Ein must create a scenario where each of the heroes he thinks can help him will die and then subsequently be brought back to life by him using the power he has been granted by the god of death. Pretty original plot line for a fantasy story huh? I thought so too. Needless to say some of these heroes don’t exactly cooperate when Ein attempts to bring them into the fold of his band of warriors. That whole dying thing kind of puts a huge damper on things it seems. First there is Itami Cho, The Whispering Blade, who is among the quickest sword fighters of the realm and attacks with blinding speed and proficiency. Next is Zhihao Cheng, The Emerald Wind, who can literally transmit images of himself in different locations so as to confuse his enemy and then close in with the fatal blow while his foe is still trying to decipher who the real one is.  Then we have Iron Gut Chen, who as his name suggests has impenetrable skin that can withstand virtually any sword thrust or physical attack without being hurt. Bingwei Ma rounds out Ein’s dream team and is a master of hand to hand combat, so much so that he has often defeated heavily-armed men with stunning ease just with his bare hands.

These are the warriors that Ein has selected and recruited to attempt the unenviable task of breaching the Emperor’s military defenses and hopefully killing him. Ein has a huge problem though because as with any group where there are various egos vying for supremacy, these legendary warriors do not like each other and don’t mind saying so at every opportunity. Throughout the journey to try to hunt down the emperor, there are constant skirmishes and quarrels as each believes that their role in the group is more important than the others, leading to some interesting confrontations. Both Cheng and Chen are essentially legends in their own minds at times. That’s not to say that they aren’t powerful and skilled fighters, but there is definitely a sense that their reputations may be a bit overblown to say the least. Cho and Bingwei Ma on the other hand are obviously not only the deadliest of the crew (at least in my opinion) but are also the level-headed half of the four who are often needed when things get a bit out of control. The question remains however, can this carefully selected band of egotistical warriors meld themselves into the cohesive fighting force needed to take down a powerful emperor? And will we ever know who Ein really is and why exactly he wants the emperor dead in the first place? So many intriguing questions arise that do get answered for the most part, but not first without the heavy price of blood, battle, and death.


I would like to applaud Rob J. Hayes for delivering another brilliant book that is also very different in style from the usual fantasy offerings we see. Here we have a truly unique fantasy world heavily influenced by the “warrior code” of Asian history and culture. Yet even with a refreshingly unique style of voice and setting, I still felt that at its heart this was very much a fantasy book. The fantastical elements were always present even though they were delivered in a non-conventional way. The originality of needing someone to die to recruit them into your team of warriors was so expertly handled and is something that I hadn’t seen used before. The whole time I was reading Never Die I kept thinking, what is he going to throw at me next? At no time while I was reading this book could I predict what might occur. I also liked the fact that there were two major dilemmas within the plot. The first was the actual mission to attempt to murder the emperor, but the brilliance comes when you put together four people who absolutely need to work together and who also REALLY can’t stand one another. So I was constantly guessing whether Ein could even keep the four of them from tearing each other apart long enough to even try to carry out their ultimate goal. Another aspect that I found enjoyable was the incredibly strong female character Cho. She’s obviously the brains of the crew and is also a wicked deadly fighter. I was continually blown away by how resilient and brave she was in the face of insurmountable odds. For me this book was so fun to read and a wonderful blend of quest fantasy, ancient Asian folklore, adventure fiction, and a touch of grimdark for good measure. Hayes has just solidified that he as an author who is constantly reinventing himself and writing fantasy that is wholly original while also damned entertaining. Never Die is a book that will take you on a full-throttle ride and then leave you wanting about 200 more pages to read when all is done.  It’s simply that great and I loved every page.

 

Timy’s Review – 5.5/10

I have to note, that I’ve read Never Die as an ARC back before it was released, and my review originally appeared on Grimdark Magazine.

The action starts immediately as we find ourselves right in the middle of an attack on Kaishi as the infamous Flaming Fists tries to get his daughter back, no matter the consequences. The only ones who attempt to get in his way are Itami Cho and her companions, but even they can’t stop the madness. The next day Itami Cho (or Whispering Blade) finds herself alive thanks to Ein, an 8 year old boy. He is tasked by a shinigami (god of death) to kill the Emperor of Ten Kings for which he requires heroes to be bound to him in their death. Cho, not having any other chance, follows Ein, swears an oath to keep him safe and fulfil his quest. They set out to recruit fellow heroes Zhihao Cheng, The Emerald Wind; Chen Lu, Iron Gut; and Bingwei Ma The Master of the Sun Valley. The little group gets complete with Roi Astara, Dead Echo, a leper who joins Ein in the hope the boy can give him back his life once he dies because of the disease he carries.

Never Die’s story moves with a fast pace, and there is hardly a dull moment with the fighting scenes following each other either because the characters are duelling with each other or yokai (evil spirits) who try to prevent them from reaching their destination. We learn a bit of every character’s past and special powers with which they fight—what makes them memorable to the people they saved. All of the monsters or yokai are based on Asian mythological creatures and I would have liked to learn more about them.

Even though I’m sure many people will find this book a highly entertaining read, I found myself struggling with it. It is no question that Rob J. Hayes is an apt writer, who can write flowing fighting scenes without a dull moment, and interesting enough characters—on the outside. Despite Hayes’ ability, I thought the storyline was too simple and in the majority of the book the characters wandered around, duelled with each other, then fought some monster which appeared thanks to the shinigami who was trying to stop Ein and his mission.

The fight scenes were interesting enough but about halfway through I wished there was something else happening too. We learn almost nothing about the culture of Hosa whose emperor they are supposed to kill—for which we don’t really get a valid reason, except that the shinigami wants Ein to do it and that he is supposed to be an evil emperor. All this is told a few times rather than showed and it’s hard to come up with an answer to the question: why should we care about this emperor? Or the supposed heroes for that matter.

They all have their characteristics and personalities and they are distinctive from each other, but maybe because there are quite a few of them, we don’t really get to know them. We get glimpses into their lives and personalities but they remain somehow two-dimensional and not too interesting in the long run. They all have their own motivations and powers, but we don’t really learn about how they aquired them, or how these powers really work. They feel weightless, and their only motivation is the fact that they are bound to Ein. We are told that they are supposed to be heroes, but once again, that’s the problem: Hayes tries a bit too hard to put down on our throat that they are heroes but they don’t really feel like that, except maybe for Itami Cho. Their only purpose is to kill whatever or whoever gets in their way without really questioning why things happen the way they do.

There are some twists at the end of the book, one of them becomes quite obvious about 75% in, and another one isn’t as surprising either if one pays enough attention to the little hints placed in the story. Despite these flaws, Never Die, which has a Mortal Kombat-like feeling to it, will be well liked by fantasy readers. It’s fast-paced, features unique monsters and tells the tale of a band of heroes on their way to glory and vengeance. Never Die is a story about gaining a second chance at life for the price of death.


Belle: 6.5/10   Jen: 8/10   Nick: 9/10   Timy: 5.5/10

Our official SPFBO 5 rating for Never Die:

7/10

 

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