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Tuesday, April 7, 2020

SPFBO Finalist: Never Die by Rob J. Hayes (reviewed by Lukasz Przywoski, David Stewart, Justine Bergman and Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Order Never Die over HERE(USA) or HERE(UK)

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Having served in a hundred different offices as a keyboard monkey Rob J. Hayes finally decided to follow his life long passion of daydreaming. After writing a small horde's worth of short stories, he released his debut dark fantasy trilogy "The Ties that Bind" in 2013 as an indie publication and followed it up with the steampunk caper "It Takes a Thief to Catch a Sunrise" in 2014.

In 2017 he released his piratical duology, Best Laid Plans, and in 2018 the first book, Where Loyalties Lie won Mark Lawrence's Self Published Fantasy Blog Off.

Rob has now tried his hand at Science-Fiction (Drones, 2018) and Military Fantasy (City of Kings, 2018), and even East-Asian influenced fantasy (Never Die, 2019).

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: Time is up for the Emperor of Ten Kings and it falls to a murdered eight year old boy to render the judgement of a God. Ein knows he can't do it alone, but the empire is rife with heroes. The only problem; in order to serve, they must first die.

Ein has four legendary heroes in mind, names from story books read to him by his father. Now he must find them and kill them, so he can bring them back to fight the Reaper's war.


FORMAT: Never Die was self-published by the author in March 2018 as the first book in the Mortal Techniques series. It's available in an e-book, paperback and hardcover format from most retailers. Cover design by Damonza. 42 chapters.


What starts with a whisper, must end with a roar.

Ein has been given a task by a god of death: gather heroes of legend to end the life of the Emperor of Ten Kings. However, in order to do so, he must kill his companions to bind them to his cause to carry out his will. As they venture across Hosa towards the city of Jieshu, the seat of the Emperor, these heroes not only have to battle each other’s egos, but also dangerous creatures of myth that bar their path. Gathering aid and allies along the way, will they be able to complete a task that has been deemed impossible?

Holy hell, was this a thrilling whirlwind of an adventure! With action that begins in chapter one, and literally does not abate until the final page, it became almost impossible for me to put this book down. At its core, Never Die is a story of life and death, vengeance and justice, and of the oaths, ideals, and morals we as mankind hold dear in our hearts. It's a story of second chances, and choosing the legacy we decide to leave behind, shining light on the fact that villains can indeed become heroes. Friendship and camaraderie are some of the lighter aspects, added in just the right amounts at just the right times, that add an airy tone to the otherwise heavy content. With strong Japanese influence and use of different myths and folklore, I was completely consumed right from the start, and I can honestly say that I have yet to read anything quite like this.

There simply isn't any other way to begin discussing Never Die without first introducing the amazingly diverse cast of characters Hayes has created, each so distinct and beautifully crafted. Ein, a mysterious boy and collector of heroes, who we really don't know much about, other than he was set forth on a path of death by a shinigami. Itami Cho, The Whispering Blade, reserved and renowned Shintei swordswoman, oath taker and oath breaker. Zhihao Cheng (my favorite!), The Emerald Wind, bandit and self-proclaimed villain, who doesn't believe one act of goodness can cleanse him of a lifetime of depravity. Chen Lu, Iron Gut, seeker of glory, and famous for skin as tough as steel with an ample belly that can withstand almost anything. Bingwei Ma, The Master of Sun Valley, undefeated unarmed wushu master who refuses to take a life. Roi Astara, Death's Echo, leper and crackshot that fights from afar and kills for the greater good. With a relatively large cast for a standalone story, the author skillfully breathes life into each of these characters. Shifting focus per chapter, accompanied by a slightly different tone, we're given insight into the characters' personalities, wants, and needs without things being explicitly clarified. As each hero joins the team, it's easy to sense the change in dynamics, and as time continues there's a real sense of companionship that develops, despite their egos, paving the way for welcomed banter, humor, and profound loyalty.

In addition to tremendous characters, I thought it was brilliant how the environment plays a direct role in the action that is encountered throughout. This isn’t just a tale where the heroes are beset by bandits or soldiers along their journey, but instead are barraged by a whole variety of monstrous spirits that seem at home in the settings they're happened upon, progressively becoming more dangerous: vengeful lesser yokai slithering through the bamboo forests in the dead of night, a horrifying mizuchi with its countless eel heads barreling its way downriver, mythical hulking oni stomping through the great forest of Qing. The lands of Hosa are larger-than-life, and the threats hidden within are nothing less. The nail biting action is intense and never ceases; the fights well-chronicled, visceral, and best described as hyper-violent, chock full of plumes of blood and dismemberment. Upon reaching the city of Jieshu, we learn of the greatest threat to the people of Hosa, and the final battle is nothing but epic and heroic.

There were monsters in the world, Cho knew that well enough, but none were nearly so monstrous as man.

I don't think I can truly express how much I love this book without accidentally spewing spoilers, so I'll just finish this off by saying the ending is exactly how it should be. The final chapters had me at the edge of my seat and the revelations that are finally revealed are done so with perfection. I had so much fun reading Never Die and was genuinely sorry I had to turn the final page, as I wouldn't mind spending some more time in this mystical world Hayes has created. There is some room for more building, so I'll keep my fingers crossed in hopes that I'm able to return here someday! If you're looking for a brutal and entertaining adventure, look no further - this is the one you want. I highly recommend.


Wuxia is violent and anti-Confucian. But also fun.

Hayes delivers a thrilling take on classic principles and conventions of wuxia while casting them in a new light (and in a secondary world based on east-Asian influences). Wandering warriors are mostly, but not fully, alive. Some follow a code of honor, others don’t care about such nonsense. 

A mysterious murdered eight-year-old boy - Ein sets on a mission to kill Emperor of Ten Kings. He can’t do it alone. He needs the help of heroes, preferably legendary ones. To serve him, they must first die.

A plot summary barely conveys the extraordinary energy of this book. At first glance, it sounds like a simple story. Ein recruits the team and they confront the bad guy in an explosive final battle. Such a description, while sound, doesn’t do justice to the characters and their dynamics. Never Die blends reversals, unexpected meetings, betrayals, cliffhangers and lovingly described combat. 

Each character has a special skill (in some cases reflected by his/her name - Whispering Blade, Iron Gut) crucial to the success of the team. Each feels distinct and memorable. I especially liked Bingwei-Ma and Itami-Cho, probably the two most honorable team members. That said, others were intriguing and likable as well. Iron Gut and Emerald Wind's banter brought life and humor to the pages, while Death's Echo behavior rose many questions.

I will stop here because Never Die is so full of nail-biting twists and turns that I don’t want to spoil the experience. For me, it’s a fantastically entertaining piece of suspenseful action storytelling with a killer ending.


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. For disclosure purposes, I was an alpha reader for an earlier draft of this book.

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 writes 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 rising stars”.

Final SPFBO Score


Bernie said...

You guys have the book listened as part of the Spark City Cycle when Never Die is a standalone (currently, anyway). Just thought I would point it out, we're all human.

The Reader said...

Thanks for catching that Bernie, we have fixed it to the correct series title as Rob has announced it.

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