OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Never Die is Rob J. Hayes' newest standalone fantasy and the first of his two releases in 2019. Rob was inspired to write this fantasy story due to an action sequence in a video game trailer as well as the innumerable anime movies that he gorged upon in his impressionable years. The world of Never Die was first introduced in Rob's short story in "The Two Faces of War" in the Art Of War: Anthology for Charity.
Never Die introduces us to a world which is based on several nations/regions in East Asia. The story is primarily set in the region of Hosa (China analogue) and there are quite a few other regions mentioned such as Ipia, Unga, Cochtan & Nash. I believe they might correspond to Japan, Mongolia, & India or Tibet. The story focuses on a young boy named Ein who's tasked by a Shinigami (a death god) to kill the Emperor of ten kings of Hosa. But such a task is nigh impossible considering the Emperor's superhuman powers and stature. However Ein has an edge, he's out to recruit his favorite warriors from his book of heroes to help him in his task. The only catch, they must first die so he can bind them to his cause.
Focusing on four characters, Itami Cho the Whispering Blade from Ipia, Zhihao Cheng the Emerald Wind, Iron Gut Chen Lu, & Bingwei Ma the undefeated wushu master of Sun Valley. Joining them in this mission in an enigmatic assassin called Roi Astara a.k.a. Death's Echo, his loyalties are unknown as are his motivations. But the only constant is that he's dying of a particular disease that forces him to wrap himself in bandages and hope that his body is able to survive till the end. Rounding out the cast is young Ein whose intention is singular and powered with death magic, he will do everything in his power to kill the emperor for reasons only shared between him and the Shinigami. The prologue of the story is short, dark and reads "Itami Cho woke to the screams of her own death. She remembered it all!"
The story beginning on such a somber note proceeds to quickly introduce the plot and characters involved. Primarily we get the story from Itami's and Zhihao's viewpoints and secondarily from Chen Lu, Bingwei Ma and Roi Astara. Rob J. Hayes has created a story that primarily focuses on a revenge plot and seems pretty dark. But (and this is big) the world isn't a grimdark one, in fact an argument could be made for it being epic or heroic fantasy. Still not noblebright though as that would be a bridge too far for the author 😄
The world is very reminiscent of a parallel earth and steeped in Japanese mythology. The author liberally uses terms and creatures like Yokai, Oni, Jikininki, etc. which mean the same as they do on our Earth. But he also uses terms like Shintei and Thopters which correspond to specific things on our Earth (which the readers can RAFO). This world is a very deep one as snippets of its geography, history and peculiarities are sprinkled throughout the story. Nothing is particularly spelled out but you will have to pay attention as there are a lot of clues, nods and hints interspersed throughout.
Besides the intriguing world setting, the characters are the strongest component of the story. Beginning with Itami Cho, the troubled Shintei warrior, then Zhihao Cheng a bandit whose moral qualms are shakier than most. Iron gut Chen Lu is a boastful glutton whose powers and most striking physical characteristic start and end with his gargantuan stomach. Then there's also Bingwei Ma, the most heroic character of them all but also the one that might be the hardest to bend to Ein's strategy. All these characters along with Ein and Roi Astara, give the readers plenty to ponder about. These POV characters are multi-faceted and come in all shades. We have outright heroic characters, we have those who strive to achieve good but are more opportunistic. Plus there are those who are cruel and evil so to speak but they have their reasons and while they might not be palatable to most common folks, those reasons are their own.
The POV characters as well as the secondary ones are fully realized characters with motivations as pure and putrid as any found in our lives. They have their frustrations, they don't get along and aren't quite sure of Ein's true motives. How would they? He's an eight year old that brings back people to life and binds them his cause:
"Cho now realized the boy would make monsters of them before his quest was done!"
There's also a very solid mystery to this revenge storyline:
- What did happen to Ein?
- Why does he want to kill the Emperor?
- Why does he wear a red scarf and no shoes? (see the magnificent cover for Ein's red scarf).
These are pertinent questions and all of them are answered with some mental deduction by the readers as well as some huge plot twists by the author. Including the biggest twist of them all which left me stunned and was one which I don't think has been explored much in the fantasy genre. This was a particularly wicked one and I truly can't talk more. But believe me, you will know when you stumble across it as do the characters...
The story is filled with action sequences and personal battles that bring to mind Wuxia literature and anime movies. The author is a huge fan of anime and manga and there are plenty of homages and nods snuck in throughout the book. One particular reference is about China's most celebrated historical epic and it was a nice wink. I appreciated how Rob Hayes has managed to utilize East Asian lore and martial arts aspects and add his own particular brand of twisted plotlines to give us a revenge story that's uniquely his own. This world that's introduced within is too interesting for the author to just give us a standalone entry. I hope that the author write more stories set in this world as I would like to know more about:
- Of the Century Blade's past as well as the outcome of his fifth trial,
- The troubles and possible conflict with the Cochtan,
- The true backstory & the future of Daiyu Lingsen also referred to as The Art Of War by friends and foes alike.
There's just so much of this world that's mentioned in a throwaway line or character remembrance that as a reader, I was completely entranced and left wanting to explore more of it.
Lastly I must say that the cover of this book is truly fantastic. Artist Felix Ortiz & designer Shawn King have come up with something unique and wondrous. The cover matches the brilliance of the story and dare I say perhaps outshines it. As self-published books go, this cover is one of the best that I've ever seen and rivals the best that traditionally published books have to offer. Don't believe me, the Barnes & Noble SF&F blog folks say so as they hosted the cover reveal for the book. Making this a special first for any self-published title or author ever in the history of the fantasy genre. Now that's just a particular inkling for the kind of book this is.
With such a superlative story, there’s not many faults that I find in this story. But to be objective, the only thing I can say is that the final twist is perhaps not telegraphed as smoothly as it could have been. Again I can’t talk more without spoiling the story and so I’ll just leave it at that. Lastly as an Asian, I’m glad to say this book is very much a homage to the anime and manga medium. It utilizes several aspects of Japanese mythology and their usage is done with proper context.
CONCLUSION: Never Die is an incredibly action-packed, twisted story that showcases another side to Rob J. Hayes’ writing. With shades of epic fantasy, action-packed sequences as well as East Asian mythology, Never Die is a fantastic amalgamation that solidly underscores why Mark Lawrence emphatically calls Rob J. Hayes “One of self-publishing's rising stars”.