NEVER DIE by Rob J Hayes (SPFBO Finalist Review)
Phase 2 of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off is drawing to a close at the end of this month! Keep track of the finalists’ scoreboard here.
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Here’s our fifth finalist review: Never Die by Rob J Hayes.
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.
Never Die is a stand alone set in the world of Mortal Techniques. It’s a wuxia adventure filled with samurai, shinigami, heroes, and vengeful spirits.
(The cover? Production value? Prose? Editing?)
The cover is quite effective, the eclectic mix of characters, the Asian aesthetic, the darkly foreboding clouds and the title font which has a kind of blood-spatter scrawl feel to it. Says stormy times ahead to me.
I’m a big fan of Felix Ortiz’s cover art, and I loved this one. It gives you anime vibes, and it’s a fairly accurate depiction of all the characters, so it worked for me.
There are a few typos – nothing too drastic, just a little jarring when a goat-man became a got-man or a “they” appeared where it should have been a “the.”
They weren’t drastic but there were quite a lot of them!
The prose jarred a little at first, but I settled into it, or maybe it settled into me. There is a kind of naif style to it. In Spark City I found myself asking a similar question, “Is this a deliberate stylism for effect, or just clunky/clumsy writing?” Here in Never Die – deliberate or not – the effect worked better to avoid alienating me as I had been with Spark City. I think that is because Hayes maintains a consistency of voice and avoids the aggravation of excess repetition..
The prose naturally flowed for me too. I didn’t really notice any typos or jarring sentences.
I’m not sure if this is relevant but I was reading the paperback edition, and on the back in the synopsis, there is a spoiler that reveals the mystery behind the character Ein. I thought this was really unnecessary and disappointing because it spoils a crucial mystical aspect to the book.
I love the cover! Sadly when I started this book I was very underwhelmed at first (Spoilers – I liked it in the end). To be honest I don’t think I would have kept reading this, if I hadn’t read and loved some other books by the author first. That was the only reason I gave it the benefit of the doubt and soldiered on at first.
It seems we’re all in agreement on the cover – it’s certainly eye catching! It puts me in mind of Kings of the Wyld, and made me think we were perhaps headed on a similar kind of journey-adventure.
Generally, I don’t always pay attention to blurbs, I find they can sometimes mislead my expectations, so I wouldn’t necessarily have read this one had Nils not said “Guys….?” and yeah. I’m very surprised by the decision to include that on the blurb. Having gone into the book with that knowledge already, I can’t really comment on how successfully Hayes managed to keep the secret?
My first impression of the actual story was… ok? It was high action that really swept me along, but there was such little connection in the fight scene that there wasn’t really much to compel me to continue reading. Fortunately, the opening of chapter two was more interesting. The writing style, despite the little typos everywhere, was very easy to read and immediately flowed well. There was little finesse or poetry to it, but I think the author’s focus is elsewhere in this story. There were brief occasions, most notably during Cho’s perspectives, that did flirt with a more prosaic writing style, so I think it was more of a conscious decision to adopt a straighter-cut style of writing to push the pace along.
Thoughts on… THE CHARACTERS
(Do you have a favourite? Is the main character sympathetic? How’s the dialogue? Are the protagonists believable? Do we care about their plight?)
It’s difficult to talk characters apart from plot and structure. This is a kind of party quest mission in the great tradition of “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Magnificent Seven,” Daniel Polanksi’s “The Builders” and even a couple of 1970s TV shows “The Water Margin” and “Monkey.” A mismatched band of characters are assembled by a child (Dorothy/Tripitaka) they must support and protect as she/he pursues a mission against evil.
The nature of that story sort of forces the characters towards caricature that lack depth, and the way they are introduced with true names and nicknames and backstories full of heroic deeds speaks of stereotypes. But they are varied and the banter between them gradually works for me.
Personally, I really struggled to connect with any of the characters, to feel something for them. I agree with Theo, I think they lacked depth, especially Cho, and some of them felt somewhat stereotypical. Ein is intriguing from the onset, he has an unsettling cryptic feel to him which I liked, because I like creepy kids, but this was spoiled by me already knowing why he acts so strange.
I agree Nils, Ein was definitely the first aspect about the story that I found truly intriguing.
However, the ending does deliver a few twists that I was not expecting, so Hayes still managed to deliver an enjoyable ending for me.
I also loved the banter between Zhihao and Iron Gut Chen. Those two made such an entertaining duo with their quips at one another.
The characters were my big problem at the start. They feel like absolute clichés. Walking, talking tropes really. Like Nils, I liked some of the banter, and that kept me entertained enough to keep going, but I really didn’t click with anyone at first.
This will make sense later on, but only retrospectively. So even though I did care for them in the end I can’t say I cared about what happened to them in the first half, which is a lot more than I usually give a book to hook me.
I liked the characters well enough… I didn’t feel any particular connection to any of them. Whilst reading, I didn’t pick up on any stereotypes per se, but looking back I can see what my fellow judges are saying in terms of the roles that each character fulfilled.
They did lack depth, like Julia I felt I didn’t truly understand them until right at the end. Whereas I can see the purpose of this, it did mean that for most of the book I simply didn’t care about them. One could argue this was the point – these supposed ‘heroes’ weren’t actually cared for during life, and were not missed in death, therefore you’re not supposed to care for them either… but in terms of connecting with a book and enjoying it, it held me back.
I will say one thing – despite their lack of depth and their stereotypical representation, each character was distinct from each other and presented a strong individual (if not necessarily fresh and unique) voice.
Thoughts on… PLOT/STRUCTURE/PACING
(Slow start? Hard to keep up? Does the author use flashbacks/POV shifts? Do these work well or not? Did each chapter keep you turning the pages?)
The stylised format put me off a bit and that made the opening sections a bit of a chore. I have a note that the interspersed action and reflection in the opening annoyed me – mid battle a character pauses to reflect on the meaning of life and their own past, that kind of thing.
I seemingly missed these reflections Theo! I made a note on how, after a while, I found the fight sequences somewhat boring. There was great care taken in how visual the fight was, the direction of each slash and strike; but there was little thought or emotion behind such scenes. I felt it would have been more exciting if we had an impression of what the characters were thinking or feeling as they battled in order to give the reader more of an emotional connection.
The second chapter hooked my interest a little better – an enigmatic resurrection child raising fallen heroes from the dead made a bit of a change from Yul Brynner gathering his six fellow gunfighters, or Dorothy in Oz collecting companions lacking in the areas of cognition, emotion or courage.
Once I’d got the gist of the “we’re assembling a band” motif I was happy enough to ride along with it, turning the pages and getting used to the quirkiness of the prose. There was a certain formality of style that felt heavy at times yet also appropriate to the far eastern setting with heroic deeds that make Druss’s last stand at Dros Delnoch look like little more than a bar room brawl.
The plot twisted in a pleasing way and clues planted early on flowered later in suitable “oh…so that means…!” moments. However, I would not want to subject it to too close a scrutiny. There were places where I suspect a re-examination of events would uncover a plot hole you could bury an ogre in.
I actually quite liked the plot right from the beginning. The idea of Ein bringing back legendary heroes to help him gain vengeance is definitely my kind of thing.
I enjoyed the changing POV’s, it was nice getting a glimpse of each character’s inner thoughts and true intentions. There are quite a few characters so it does take a while for the plot to progress much during the middle section, because the focus is mostly on meeting those who Ein is acquiring to join his cause.
I didn’t mind the changing PoV, but what did throw me was how many different names the characters were referred to by? For example Cho, Itami, and the Whispering Blade. For the longest time, I was trying to find a pattern in the names, for example did one character call her by one name, and another character by a different name – but there wasn’t. It felt like a frustrating and unnecessary distraction!
I did love the action sequences; each character had their own distinct method of combat and their own unique powers, so this made for some brilliant magical martial arts.
There were plenty of monsters and monster slaying too, which is one of my favourite things in books! The ‘Yokai’ – vengeful spirits which could take on animal and human forms, were intriguing. The Mizuchi was my favourite one.
This felt like a really cheap Chinese action movie at first. Luckily I like those well enough to not be put off by it. Again, from the middle on I got sucked fully into the story, but I struggled a bit with the first half of the book, which felt quite repetitive. Find a hero, defeat the hero, collect the hero. Rinse and repeat! When they were finally assembled and the characters started to feel like individuals and the plot gained direction I devoured the pages as fast as possible.
Something I did love about this book was that it was emulating the kind of story that was often told within it. Some of my favourite moments were when the characters were telling a story, particularly Cho’s story of the Century Blade meeting the spirits in the forest. I do love a bit of mise en abyme.
However I did get the impression that the biggest focus for the author was the visual aspect of the story. I felt the book would have made a great movie, that there was an emphasis on how scenes looked and were perceived.
The pace was very good to be fair; I didn’t feel there was a point it slowed down, I didn’t feel there was any point in the story that was superfluous. However I did feel frustrated by the structure; not that it affected the pace necessarily, but Julia puts it perfectly – rinse and repeat.
Thoughts on… WORLDBUILDING
(Does it have a magic system? How immersed do you feel in the world? Does it feel original? Why?)
There’s a lot of necromancy at work and strange monsters abound. The book lives up to the eastern aesthetic of its cover. Hosa – empire of the ten kingdoms – feels like an analogue for ancient China. Ipia – home of the katana-wielding Whispering Blade – might be Japan.
The unearthly child who drives the party along brings back the dead in some incomplete fashion, describing them as “mostly alive” in a way that reminded me of Billy Crystal in the Princess Bride declaring Westley was only ”mostly dead.” Their taste buds are as impaired as Hector Barbossa’s in Pirates of the Carribean, their second lives more fragile than Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn’s in Death Becomes Her.
I agree with Theo about the ‘mostly alive’ references, they made me think of The Princess Bride too! 😂
I felt swept along on the story’s surface more than immersed in the world which, like the book’s characters, feels like it descends into caricature. But that doesn’t stop it from being entertaining. I mean Bollywood films – from the few youtube clips I’ve seen – appear to be founded on the utterly fantastic where disbelief is not so much suspended as catapulted into the air.
The comparison with Polanski’s novella The Builders comes back to me. There’s a mismatched band of talking animals – led by a grizzled mouse – set out to overthrow a usurping frog in the kind of Wind in The Willows that Quentin Tarentino might have directed. I had a similar sense with Never Die of – this is just crazy, but let’s go along with it. There’s also an enigmatic sharpshooter!
I was pretty immersed as, like Theo said, the world of Hosa was very much akin to an ancient China, or Japan. I liked that Hayes used all the traditional forms of Chinese/Japanese culture including clothing, mythology and weaponry. It’s lovely when an author pays attention to the details.
I kind of agree with both of you? The world was very easy to visualise Nils, but I agree with Theo that it lacked depth in terms of political intrigues and cultures, societies and religions – these were all brushed upon in some aspect or another, but not explored any further.
I felt the magic system could have used more depth. I wanted to know more about the use of ‘qi’, the ‘shinigami’ and how the powers manifested in each of our main characters.
Without wanting to spoil too much, I loved the chess pieces! I thought that was a brilliant way of demonstrating just how varied the magic of the world was.
I really enjoyed the world, the myths, the whole feel of this world! It worked really well and I enjoyed spending time with a culture so very different to my own, though at times a bit more depth to the overall feel, not just the cultural background would have been even better.
I don’t really have anything further to add to the worldbuilding, as I said it was visual but lacked depth; like watching a particularly cinematic Chinese movie.
That’s a good point, Beth. It would make a great movie, or anime.
QUOTATIONS that amused/resonated with you
There were some points where the writing felt a little clumsy beyond what I might have passed off as a deliberate affect of style. But there were also some lines that made me smile.
“The difference between the rich and the powerful was always made much clearer by walls. The rich hid behind them, the powerful tore them down.”
Or of the whiny one in the party,
“Zhihao complained like a babe without a teat.”
Or of the slumbering Friar Tuck one,
“The fat man… let out a snore that ripped the silence of the forest in two.”
As I said, the banter was brilliantly entertaining. So here’s one that made me chuckle;
‘King Lin once tested me with the Twelve Poisons of Creeping Death. Twelve poisons, a drop of each enough to kill a man. Do you know what they did to me?”
Zhihao sighed. “Was it nothing?”
Chen Lu shook his head. “No. I had a horrible case of gas.” To emphasise his point, he let out a fart that echoed around the forest, then he set about laughing as if he had made the funniest joke Hosa had ever heard.’
“The stars taught that a fathomless void awaited all those who died: an eternal drifting, alone and apart from everything and everyone. If that was the truth, it seemed like a good incentive to stay alive no matter the cost.”
– I loved the thought that people didn’t have an incentive to live good lives, or avoid living bad ones, but to just live, to just stay alive.
In a rarity for SPFBO this year, I found this one grew on me. So often I’ve found that a promising initial premise has faded under the weight of expectation and errors in execution. The “in my head” score for Never Die however rose somewhat, rather than fell as I read on. An entertaining enough pastiche of heroic tales stitched together in a form that works well enough without ever being a deep character study.
Never Die had all the right ingredients for a book I would normally love; that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it, because the narrative and magical elements were compelling to read, but because I couldn’t get enthusiastic over any of the characters, I was somewhat disappointed. With some added depth, I truly think I would have enjoyed this more.
A really bold move to have a big twist at the end, that changes most of the book when looking back. I ended up really enjoying it and would recommend it, but only for those who have the patience to wait for the whole story and stylistic choices to make sense. If you’re looking for something different and bold, this is a fantastic choice.
If you enjoy high-action, and cool fight scenes, then this book will tick all your boxes. Like Nils, I usually prefer a high level of character connection in a book; I much prefer character-driven stories to action or plot-driven. However, I did enjoy the whole theme of stories – and felt Hayes himself was quite a strong story-teller – the way they evolve, the way in which we can shape them, how their expectations can shape us. Like Theo, I ended up having enjoyed this more than I thought I was going to at the start, which made a refreshing change for me also!