ARC provided by the author in exchange for an honest review.
This review is quite long but the short version is this: Never Die is currently one of the three best self-published books I’ve ever read. If you still need more convincing, read further.
Joining The Mirror’s Truth by Michael R. Fletcher and We Ride the Storm by Devin Madson, Never Die is the third self-published book that currently holds a full 5-star rating from me. If you’re familiar with Hayes’s Where Loyalties Lie, which I assume is where most of you know about Rob Hayes, the first thing you should know about Never Die is that it’s completely a different kind of book from his Best Laid Plans duology. There was far less swearing, there was no romance, no rape, no sex scenes, no pirates, and no naval battles; other than the action sequences being bloody, there’s little similarity between the two works. Never Die is more like Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold infused with Samurai, Shinigami, Japanese lore and mythology, Wuxia, and anime-inspired battles in an ancient Japanese setting. It’s a book heavily influenced by anime like Sword of the Stranger, Japanese manga that involved yokai, and Eastern martial arts movies. Honestly speaking, Hayes has been talking about this book to me for almost a year now. My expectations were high because this sounded like a book that would definitely work for me and even then, Never Die was still able to fulfill that high level of expectation; the last 20% of the book even exceeded my hopes, but I’ll talk more about that later in the review. Suffice it to say that it was almost as if Never Die was written specifically for me so that I could embrace my love for SFF novels and Japanese manga/anime at once. Just like The Fifth Empire of Man, this book ended up becoming another book written by Hayes that I finished in a day, specifically in two sittings; it was that thoroughly captivating.
“Some fight for honour, and some for reward.
Some for glory, and others for a cause.
Some fight for freedom, from tyranny and hate.
And some fight for love, not for a person but a name.
With death as their guide, their companion and goal.
They cross all Hosa, spirit, flesh, and soul.
Hounded by demons, from the pages of lore.
What starts with a whisper, must end with a roar.”
Ein is on a quest given by a shinigami. He’s tasked with killing the Emperor of Ten Kings, the ruler of Hosa. In order to do that, he has to find and bind four legendary heroes; the problem with this is that the four legendary heroes have to be dead first so that Ein can revive them and bind them to his will. From the blurb alone, I think you should be able to guess that Never Die is a quest-oriented story. I honestly thought the plot was going to be predictable, a simple recruitment and assassination kind of story. Although this was mostly true, I was still blindsided by how well-crafted the last 20% of the book was which, again, I’ll get into later. However, even though most of the plot progression was simple, there was so much more meaning and depth to the narrative. Never Die wonderfully tells a story that encompasses justice, friendship, retribution, honor, and oaths; there were plenty of meaningful and hopeful moments in a story about life and death that’s supposed to be dark, and I personally couldn’t be more pleased with it.
“The difference between the rich and the powerful was always made so much clearer by walls. The rich hid behind them, the powerful tore them down.”
The strong execution of the plot was only possible because the main characters were so distinctive from each other and each POV was compelling to read. Itami Cho, Ein, Zhihao, Chen Lu, Bingwei Ma, and Roi Astara were a group of misfits and unlikely heroes that shouldn’t even be able to work together but somehow, in these characters, I found heartwarming friendship and inspiring heroism. It didn’t take long for me to warm up to them. Each character’s personality really came to life and every new character’s introduction immediately made me care about them and curious to learn more about them. Seeing the gradual bonding of the main characters was unexpected and quite wholesome to read. I also loved how the relationship between Cho and Ein reminded me of Nanashi and Kotaro from Sword of the Stranger. Plus, same as Nanashi, Cho has also vowed to never unsheathe her other katana—War—and in my opinion, her conviction greatly enhanced the compelling narrative of her character. My personal favorite characters from the book were definitely Itami Cho and Zhihao. Cho’s determination to uphold her Oath was so honorable; she really tried her best to do what’s right even though she has regrets regarding her unfulfilled oath in her past. As for Zhihao, out of all the characters, he fits the unlikely and reluctant hero bill the best. Out of every character he created, Hayes developed these two characters the most and he did a spectacular job with it.
“It takes a lifetime of evil to be a villain, and only one moment of good to be a hero.”
As far as I know, Hayes is not an Asian but I, as an Asian reader and a self-proclaimed anime/manga enthusiast, genuinely think that Hayes captured the essence of Japanese anime and Eastern martial arts with swift justice. The Japanese and anime inspirations in this book are abundant and they filled me with so much joy. I loved the portrayal of scenery in the book: the deep orange color of sunset evoked to paint the characters’ surroundings; the bamboo forest that reminded me of Arashiyama in Kyoto; a world full of spirits and yokai like Hone-onna, mokumokuren, Jikininki, or even Oni; the usage of weaponry and techniques, such as Kanata and Eastern martial arts like Wushu that Hayes chose to implement. Gratification is the only word I can use to describe my feelings towards the world-building of this novel. Never Die is a standalone book that really concluded brilliantly, but should Hayes ever decide to revisit this setting there is a lot of room for another story in the same world, as readers will see hinted at in the world-building. Also, there were a few nice nods to Chinese history, such as The Romance of the Three Ages (obviously inspired by The Romance of the Three Kingdoms) and a genius tactician that goes by the name Art of War (Inspired by Sun Tzu’s Art of War.) to name a few.
Hayes’s prose has always flowed smoothly; it’s simple, engaging, vivid, and immensely accessible. Never Die was no exception, but it was even better, clearly showing that Hayes’s prose has improved even further. Surprisingly, the book was also philosophical and sometimes even poetic, something I didn’t get at all from reading his Best Laid Plans duology. I barely highlighted any passages in Best Laid Plans, but here? There were a lot of well-written sentences that spoke volumes with few words so that even the mere act of unsheathing a katana held incredible weight. Although Hayes’s prose may not be beautiful like that of Brian Staveley or Patrick Rothfuss, it was still written effectively with brutal efficiency, and the words in Never Die disintegrated into imagery with ease. The settings and situations both frantic and calm were vividly described so that every scene was completely immersive. To me, that is a sign of a great storytelling.
“One can either let their losses define them, or define those losses by what is left to them.”
Even after all these praises, I still must say that the one way in which Hayes has clearly improved is in his writing of action scenes. Never Die displayed a different sort of combat than Hayes’s previous works; most of the battles in this book feature close-quarter combat, and there was also plenty of incredible magic/yokai on savage display. Personally, I think these scenes were superbly written and even better than the battles in The Fifth Empire of Man, which were already great. Up until the 80% mark of the book, his story was a 4-star read for me; however, the last 20% instantaneously catapulted it to a 5-star rating with ease. Hayes unsheathed his blade to unleash fatal Battōjutsu in all the action sequences in this book; the results were swift, precise, and deadly. But the climax sequences in this book was the section that really put Rob Hayes’s skill as an author into the spotlight. By invoking elation in the thrill of the final battles, Hayes orchestrated an Ougi that delivered a crimson requiem to conclude the Reaper’s war with finesse. The buildup of the cinematic set pieces was felt, the roar of battles was seen, and the clashing of steel was heard. In less than 300 pages, Hayes was able to include plenty of engaging duel scenes, exhilarating big battles against yokai, and pulse-pounding large-scale war with a myriad of blood-spattered scenes; and he did it all without neglecting crucial characterizations. To sum it up quickly, the effectiveness of the devastation and destruction unleashed in the final 20% of the novel were like watching the type of breathtaking final battle scene found in my favorite kind of anime; truly a relentless barrage of palpable tension and emotions.
“For some, a sword is an extension of themselves, and thus any sword will do. For others the sword and wielder are one, two halves of one soul, and neither will ever be complete without the other.”
I don’t know what else I need to say to convince you to read this incredible book. Just pre-order this and be pleasantly surprised when it arrives at your doorstep or on your e-reader; I honestly can’t wait to hold and reread this book in its resplendent physical form. For a relatively short book, it’s unbelievable how much gravitas is packed within it; almost everything about this novel just worked for me. Glorious, heroic, inspiring, brutal, at times hilarious, but most of all incredibly unforgettable; Never Die currently holds the crown for being one of the three best self-published novels I’ve ever read and I am grateful to have read it.
If you love wonderful artworks, please check out the talented and underrated Felix Ortiz’s portfolio (www.artstation.com/felixortiz). Not only he’s responsible for this gorgeous cover art, (as well as the current header image for my blog, Novel Notions) he’s also overall a really great dude. Lastly, I’d like to point out the awesome typography and cover design by Shawn T. King (www.stkkreations.com). Shinigami bless you for your great works and for not sticking to the all too common and overly used Cinzel font.
You can pre-order this book by clicking this link!
The quotes in this review were taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.