“sometimes one can only be victorious in defeat”
In Never Die, the first in a series of standalone novels set in the Mortal Techniques universe, Rob J Hayes gives us a spectacular Wuxia inspired world. After finding myself drawn in from the very first page, this ultimately proved to be my favourite read of 2023. There’s so much to enjoy in this novel, which has been masterfully written and constructed and it was a pleasure to read. It passes the key test for me where, long after finishing, I’m still thinking about those characters and their epic adventure.
With its movie inspirations it’s not a surprise that the novel is incredibly visual and I can’t think of a comparable book in terms of that style. There’s lots of action and beautifully choreographed fight scenes, showcasing the contests between the key players and their enemies. The characters and their opponents all have different styles of combat, which makes each of these scenes different, avoiding repetition. Whilst there’s certainly a heavy emphasis on the action, it’s important to stress this is far from being a flashy, one-dimensional book.
The action is blended with an engaging and relatable group of characters, which isn’t always easy to do with an ensemble cast and multiple points of view throughout the novel. This applied equally to the ‘hi and die’ enemies faced by the heroes, who were still vividly drawn, even when they often only occupied a few pages.
The main cast really does shine. Itami Cho, known as Whispering Blade, is sworn to protect the innocent, tortured by her failures. Zhihao Cheng, the Emerald Wind, is a bandit with a very different moral code. Boastful Iron Gut Chen’s strength is legendary, his mastery of qi making his skin unbreakable. Bingwei Ma, the Master of Sun Valley, is unparalleled in hand-to-hand combat, yet sworn never to take a life. Roi Astara is Death’s Echo, a deadly sniper suffering from advanced leprosy and necrosis, hoping the quest will result in him being healed before it’s too late.
This unlikely group is gathered together by a small pale-eyed boy called Ein, who has the ability to bring people back from the dead. However, there is a price, as those restored in this way are bound to Ein and can only be freed once he completes his quest to kill the Emperor of Hosa. Despite their differences, Hayes slowly brings this disparate group of allies together and unlikely friendships begin to form. As a reader, he makes you really care for these characters, so you feel for them during their setbacks and celebrate with them in their victories.
The setting has incredible depth and feels so real. The different parts of Hosa are distinctive, fleshed out with legends and fragments of other tales, hinting at more still to be discovered. The magical elements are inventive, such as the ability of the Emerald Wind to appear and disappear at will, or the power of Cho’s sword Peace, which is activated by her voice. Danger is never far away, with various memorable monsters constantly pursuing Ein and his companions, trying to stop them from reaching their goal.
I’m not going to give away any spoilers but the ending is so powerful and well written. This novel really delivers on every level, Hayes constantly raising the stakes, right up until its epic conclusion.
Never Die is a superb achievement and one of the best books I’ve ever read. After completing this I couldn’t resist returning to the Mortal Techniques world. My review of the follow-up, Pawn’s Gambit, will appear in January and I’m eager to discover more of Hayes’ writing soon.