ARC provided by the author in exchange for an honest review.
Cover art illustrated by: Felix Ortiz
Cover art designed by: STK.Kreations
Spirits of Vengeance by Rob J. Hayes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Series: Mortal Techniques (Book #3)
Genre: Fantasy, High fantasy, Wuxia
Pages: 554 pages (Kindle edition)
Published: 28th September 2021 by Rob J. Hayes (Self-published)
Rob J. Hayes has done it. He has created a novel that surpassed Never Die; Spirits of Vengeance is not only my favorite novel in the Mortal Techniques series, but it is also Hayes’s best work so far.
“Wanting it is a start… You also have to act. To try. Otherwise, it’s nothing more than an empty promise.”
Two things first. First, Hayes isn’t the singular person that excels here. The duo of Felix Ortiz (cover artist) and Shawn T. King (cover designer) made a return once again, and I have to say that Spirits of Vengeance is Ortiz’s finest cover art so far. It’s shocking, I know; Ortiz has blessed self-published fantasy with a lot of striking cover arts, and he constantly improves himself. Second, because I know this question will be asked, Mortal Techniques is a series of standalone novels with connection to each other, so can you read Spirits of Vengeance without reading Never Die and Pawn’s Gambit? The answer to that question is yes and no, and I will elaborate more on these in my review below.
“Oaths and vows should never be taken lightly. There is power in a promise that goes beyond the words. They bind our souls to a purpose, and failure can rend a person in two as surely as any blade.”
The Ipian Empire was once a land that welcomed dragons and spirits, but a century of war and bloodshed has changed the situation drastically. Now, the Onryo are gathering. Five legendary spirits with mysterious power are fully determined to free an ancient evil that would destroy humanity. The story in Spirits of Vengeance follows Haruto, an immortal Onmyoji that has sworn his soul to the God of Death to hunt down the vengeful ghost of his wife. He’s accompanied by Shiki (his companion spirit) and Guang, and Haruto ends up having another mission: to avenge Tian’s (Guang’s son) death. On their journey, Haruto and Guang’s fate intertwined with Kira, a student at Heiwa—an academy for students with dangerous powers—and Yanmei, one of Kira’s tutors who genuinely cares and wants to protect Kira. Vengeance—as you can probably guess from the premise—is one of the key themes of this novel, but you would be mistaken if you think that this is the only driving force of the plot. Spirits of Vengeance is, by far, the biggest book in the series so far; it’s twice the length of Never Die. I do believe that this longer page count allows Hayes to include more themes—kindness, redemption, the bravery to do good, consequences, parenthood, and found family–effectively through his characters.
“We children of bandits make excuses for our parents when we’re young. We have to because we don’t know how else to exist. They’re our parents and they’re supposed to love us and we’re supposed to love them. So we make excuses. We reason away the things we know they do. We make excuses for them, even when they won’t make those excuses for themselves. Even when they don’t think they need to.”
I’m gladly impressed by the characterizations of the four main characters. I’ve mentioned that I enjoyed reading Pawn’s Gambit, but I didn’t find the characters in Pawn’s Gambit to be as distinctive and compelling as the characters in Never Die. Fortunately, that’s not the case here; the four main characters in Spirits of Vengeance were a total delight to read, and the four of them are up there with Itami Cho—my favorite character in Never Die. Yes, all four of them. Out of all of his books that I’ve read, Haruto, Guang, Kira, and Yanmei are, in my opinion, some of Hayes’s most well-crafted characters so far. *whispers* Oh sorry, yes Shiki, you too.
“Yokai aren’t evil… Evil isn’t something a person is, it’s a choice a person makes. Yokai are creatures of instinct. It is their nature to seek vengeance. It is why they exist. They are not evil, but anyone who chooses to use them to commit atrocities is evil. Because that is the choice they have made.”
Haruto is a character that reminded me a lot of Manji from Blade of the Immortal by Hiroaki Samura. His life as an immortal doesn’t mean that it comes with a lot of happiness; it’s the other way around. Haruto suffered a lot throughout his long life. But despite that, he never stops trying to do good. Even though the rule dictates that he should get paid for his job as an onmyoji, Haruto never really cares about money. There are reasons behind his actions, there are reasons behind him becoming an onmyoji, and I felt more invested with Haruto; the same notion applied to the other three main characters. Guang’s friendship with Haruto and their understanding of each other were subtle and wholesome. I’m a sucker for redemption theme done well, and this theme was especially evident in Haruto, Guang, and Yanmei; they’re all trying to be a better person than their past selves.
“We live in a world of people passing their pain to others. It shouldn’t be that way.”
Regarding Yanmei, there’s something you should know. She’s indeed the same Yanmei as the one in Never Die and Pawn’s Gambit. Yanmei was a supporting character in the previous two installments, but she’s one of the main characters here. I don’t think it’s mandatory to read the previous two books to enjoy the main story of this novel, but if you’ve read them, you’d definitely get more out of her character’s development. And my god, what a development it was. I’ve mentioned the friendship between Haruto and Guang, but there’s also Yanmei’s relationship with Kira; it’s easily one of my favorite elements of the novel. Out of the four main characters, Kira was the only one that underwent training montage—on the usage of qi—sequences, and she faced harsh internal conflicts surrounding her identity and ability. As I mentioned earlier, I loved all the main characters, and Kira is obviously included in the equation, too. The progression of her story and characterizations were stellar, and it’s satisfying to witness Hayes’s creativity in utilizing Kira’s ability to manipulate mirrors and reflections. This ability is similar to Haku from Naruto by Masashi Kishimoto. The bond this band of misfits, or found family, has continuously gets stronger with each page; it’s so rewarding.
“You said being good is about helping others. Even if they don’t think they need it. Being good is lending a hand when someone is in trouble. He can’t win. Not alone.”
One of the things I loved about Never Die other than the characterizations were the breathtaking anime-style actions and world-building. This was less prevalent in Pawn’s Gambit; it was one of the reasons why I liked Pawn’s Gambit less. However, Spirits of Vengeance combined the awesomeness of Never Die and Pawn’s Gambit together into one package. The action sequences here reminded me of Demon Slayer (Kimetsu no Yaiba) and other shonen anime. The inferno produced by the clash of flames was cinematic; the deadly crimson blade unleashed left a lingering effect on each scene; each battle against the onryos was always devastating and instantly immersive. There were three memorable battle scenes, all of them were bloody magnificent, and the final 15% of the book was the biggest—and most superb—of them all.
“Not justice. I am not justice. I am a spirit of vengeance.”
Hayes deserves applause for the amount of research he did for this novel. Orochi, onryo, onmyoji, dragons, ungaikyo, tengu, buruburu, yokai, and so many more were integrated properly into the world-building. Every setting the characters visited felt so vivid in my imagination; the snowy landscape, the lively or desolated cities, the claustrophobic mine, the awe-inspiring Graveyard of Swords. There were a few sections where each paragraph seemed to shift to a different perspective, but somehow this made the storytelling even better. The author’s prose keeps on getting better with each book, and this is extensively proven through “the story within a story” that Hayes employed in Spirits of Vengeance. Seriously, every part that involved Guang telling a story—about the Wailing Woman, the Gilded Crone, the Tale of Nightsong, the Herald of Bones, and more—were quite likely my favorite parts of the entire novel. It’s brilliant.
“Our peoples’ stories. All of our peoples’. Ipian, Hosan, Nash, Cochtan. It might surprise you how many stories we share. And perhaps even more surprising that the lessons hiding in the stories are the same ones told time and time again.”
Before I end this review, let me elaborate upon the question of whether you can read Spirit of Vengeance without reading the previous installments in the series or not. Here’s the thing, I do think it’s totally possible to enjoy the main story without missing the key points that made this novel so good. However, if you’re the type of reader who wants to experience every single Easter Eggs and background, it will be hugely beneficial for you to read Never Die and Pawn’s Gambit first. Unlike Pawn’s Gambit, this novel has more references and relation to the past installments. I’ve talked about Yanmei as a recurring character, but there’s also the legend of Century Blade—Itami Cho’s master—and Flaming Fist that appeared in Never Die. It’s something for you to consider. Mortal Techniques is a series of connecting standalone novels; each installment has a new storyline and main cast that will earn your attention without reading the previous books, but they’re all connected with each other. Lastly, I’m reading the eARC edition of this book. There will be a hardcover edition—probably upon release date—and this hardcover edition will feature several exclusive interior artworks done by Stas Borodin. One of the examples:
My expectations towards this novel were incredibly high, and Hayes met them, even exceeded them on many fronts. Equally explosive, emotional, and pulse-pounding, Spirits of Vengeance successfully delivered an exceptional narrative brimming with staggering impact. This is, undoubtedly, Hayes’s best book so far in his career. I’ve mentioned before that Hayes is creating something special with this series, and I stand by my words. Rest assured, this isn’t the end of Mortal Techniques. Hayes is likely building towards a Mortal Techniques style Ragnarok event with the series, and I look forward to following the journey to reach that destination. I absolutely loved Spirits of Vengeance; it’s an amazing book. And now the curse of waiting for the next installment begins again.
“Hah! Well, that’s life, isn’t it? You don’t ask for a lot of the stuff it throws at you, but you either look at it like a gift or a curse, and then figure out the rest from there.”
Official release date: 28th September 2021
The quotes in this review were taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.
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