Pawn’s Gambit by Rob J Hayes
Pawn’s Gambit is the second in the Mortal Techniques series of standalone wuxia-inspired fantasy novels by Rob J. Hayes, and I have to say it’s every bit as good as Never Die, the previous entry in the series.
Set roughly five years after the previous book, this one follows former strategist and general Daiyu Lingson, also known as The Art of War but now going by the name of Yuu, as she tries to escape her past and drown the pain of her memories in as much cheap wine as she can get her hands on. Unfortunately for Yuu, she has been chosen by Natsuko, the Ipian goddess of missed opportunities and lost things, to represent her in a once-in-a-century contest to determine which god will rule heaven for the next hundred years.
The main bulk of the narrative has Yuu being led around the countryside in search of a series of mystical artefacts belonging to the various gods. The idea is that the champion who finds the most artefacts wins, though as becomes apparent in the later stages of the novel, there’s always a catch. Along the way, Yuu enlists the aid of would-be hero Li Bang, a clapped out horse called Lump, and the roguish Zuan li Fang, the self-styled Prince of Thieves, to help her deal with the forces arrayed against her.
As with Never Die, the pacing and storytelling in this book are superlative. If anything, Rob Hayes’ writing has just got better in the last couple of years, and while there’s less direct action in this one it still races along nicely. The principal characters are all suitably well-developed and easy to get along with, and the villains and bad guys are suitably villainous and despicable in their own ways.
As already mentioned, Yuu spends most of the book trying to run away from her past, but by the end of the story she’s forced to not only accept who she used to be, but to also embrace her full potential as The Art of War, to take on that persona one last time in order to prevail in the final confrontation against Batu, the god of war himself. In a sense, this is a tale of self-discovery and redemption, and at every step the reader is shown a tiny, subtle glimpse of the road that Yuu must travel down to reach her final destination.
I genuinely enjoyed this book, and look forward to reading more of the Mortal Techniques series as it becomes available. I would definitely recommend this one to fans of wuxia and oriental fantasy in general. You don’t need to have read Never Die to appreciate this book, but if you do give this one a try and enjoy it then I seriously advise you to try the other one as well. You won’t be disappointed.