Never Die by Rob J. Hayes
This is a fantastic book. It’s an exhilarating mix of Chinese wuxia action and Japanese folklore, all wrapped up in a tapestry of well-drawn characters and high octane fight sequences. This is what happens when you throw a bunch of carefully selected tropes and motifs into a blender and pour the results onto the page. In a word, delicious.
The boy child Ein has been tasked with a mission by a shinigami, a god of death. The mission: to assassinate the Emperor of Ten Kings. To aid him in this quest, the shinigami has gifted young Ein with the power to resurrect dead heroes to fight for him, with the promise that when the mission has been completed those who survive will be given a second chance at life.
The first hero to be drawn into Ein’s quest is Itami Cho, The Whispering Blade, but she is soon joined by the bandit Zhihao (The Emerald Wind), Iron Gut Chen Lu, and Bingwei Ma, the Master of Sun Valley. Ein knows of these heroes from their exploits, recounted faithfully in a book he read, though not all of them agree with his belief in their greatness; Zhihao especially considers himself more a villain than a hero, given his past exploits as a bandit.
Along with the recently deceased heroes, the group is also joined by Roi Astara, also known as Death’s Echo, a sharpshooting leper who appears to be part assassin, part folk hero. He knows of Ein’s quest and wishes to join the heroes in the hope that his reward will be an end to his terrible disease and the pain it causes him.
Structurally, the narrative reads like a cross between a typical wuxia movie, some of the darker examples of fantasy anime and a particularly frenetic JRPG. Chapters more or less alternate between character building and kick-ass fight action, often with one of the named heroes taking centre stage for the fight against the bad guys. And what an array of bad guys we’ve got. There are bandits, yokai (evil spirits of the dead), a mizuchi (river dragon), an oni (evil giant ogre with horns) and of course, eventually, the armies of Wu and the Emperor himself.
The fight scenes themselves are superlative. They capture the feel of wuxia/anime perfectly, and often lead to the hero or heroes involved needing some form of assistance to beat their foes, hammering home the idea that the characters need to learn how to work together to achieve their ends. I can imagine that for some readers this approach might seem repetitive or tedious, but for me it was just another example of Hayes’ understanding of the source material used for inspiration. Even the quieter chapters carry a lot of the eastern influence in them, with Hayes’ use of colour and description echoing the characters’ situation at the time. Put bluntly, it’s nothing short of beautiful.
Speaking of beautiful, there’s that cover. It’s from indie artist Felix Ortiz, who has a massive body of work on Art Station (https://www.artstation.com/felixortiz). I strongly urge you to check out his artwork.
As you can probably guess, I loved this book and I’m really hoping the author gives us more in a similar vein going forward. It’s only the second of his works I’ve read, the other being his first novel, The Heresy Within, and I can definitely see an improvement in style and ability between the two. On that alone I’m already planning on going back and reading the rest of his back catalogue at some point soon.
Long story short, if you love over the top anime action and classic wuxia movies, this book was written for you. Buy it, read it; I really don’t think you’ll regret it.