Never Die by Rob J. Hayes

A review by JC Kang

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon meets The Walking Dead.”

As an ethnic Chinese martial arts practitioner, I have a love-hate relation with Wuxia. My first introduction to the genre came not through literature, but through Shaw Brothers movies. One of my favorite ages of cinema is 1990s Hong Kong, where Jet Li rose to fame in his portrayal of folk hero Wong Fei-Hong.

Reading Wuxia, however, is another story. At the height of my Chinese skills, I could read a newspaper; but Jin Yong’s Condor Heroes, with its visual, literary prose flew over my head like a Wuxia hero in a bamboo forest. I have found that English translations—and there are many now, because of online communities like Wuxia World and Qidian—tend to either lack in their description of martial choreography, or lag with overwritten details of each individual move. As a result, I swore off Wuxia.

Then, several months ago, Barnes & Noble featured the cover of Never Die. The artistic style was unique, and featured a mix of Wuxia and Chanbara (Japanese swashbuckling) themes. To my surprise, it was a self-published story by Rob J. Hayes, whom I’d heard of from Where Loyalties Lie’s victory in SPFBO. A Wuxia novel written by a Westerner? And a celebrated one, at that? I knew I had to read it. (My apologies to GR Matthews, whose Wuxia book I have yet to read.)

Never Die starts with swordswoman (“Shintei”) Itami Cho defending a city from a bandit attack with her renowned Whispering Blade technique. Bloody and gory, the scene is a Takashi Miike-like dance of death—one that surprisingly ends with Cho dying.

She is brought back to “Mostly Alive” by Ein, an enigmatic boy with a red scarf who has been sent by a God of Death (“Shinigami”) to kill a brutal emperor. This condition of Mostly Alive renders all food and drink tasteless, and she can only remain alive as long as she stays close to him. Along their way, their company grows as they meet new heroes: Zhihao (aka, The Emerald Wind), a bandit who can disappear and reappear in a nearby spot to attack with his double hook swords; the mace-wielding, parasol-toting Iron Gut Chen, whose Qi is so powerful, he can withstand most blows; and Ma Bingwei, the greatest wushu master who refuses to kill. All are either dead, or killed and raised. They are also joined by Roi Astara, a leper sharpshooter who is not yet dead, but believes in their quest.

Along the way, they fight roving bandits and Yokai spirit demons, allowing Hayes to paint colorful martial arts scenes with words. While it is an admirable endeavor, where the writing truly shines is the characterization of the motley crew. The way they speak and move, and their quirks make them come alive through Hayes’ pen more than Ein’s death magic. The chemistry among them, whether it is romantic interest, rivalry, or devotion, all come together in just one medium-length book.

The writing is whimsical at times, intense at others; and the omniscient viewpoint is well-executed in that even though we dip into the thoughts of the large cast, there is Michael Bay-esque disorientation from head hopping. The story progresses at a moderate pace, and the ending has one of those, “Oh, I should have seen that coming,” twists that adds another layer to the story.

Overall, I liked the story, but did not love it. It’s a well-written, character-driven narrative; but to be awed by gravity-defying martial arts choreography, I’m going to stick with Hong Kong Cinema. With this in mind, I rate Never Die an 8.25.

*This review was first published on Fantasy Faction it has been republished here with the reviewer’s permission.

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