SFBO 2019 Review: Never Die by Rob J Hayes

Cover art for Never Die by Rob Hayes

Hello friends, it’s almost a new year and that means a whole new crop of SPFBO top 10 finalists have been, well, finalized. I had so much fun reviewing the 10 finalists last year so I thought this year I’d do it again. Again usual disclaimer that I am not affiliated with the contest, and my review will have no bearing on the contest’s outcome.

Never Die is gained its fair share of buzz and popularity earlier this year, partially but not exclusively because it’s the next project by a previous SPFBO winner. The cover also won this year’s SPFBO cover art contest, which goes to show sometimes you can judge a book by its cover (heh, bet you never heard that one before).

The story begins when swordswoman Itami Cho dies in an attempt to save  a city from violent bandits. However for Cho, death is only the beginning. It turns out that, for being sufficiently heroic in life, Cho has been recruited by Ein, who appears as nothing more than a little boy. But this small child has no small task  —  assassinating the Emperor. Along their quest they recruit  the help of Zhihao Cheng, a scoundrel with (maybe) a heart of gold, Chen Lu, a massive warrior who prides himself on the strength of his chi, Roi Astara, a sharpshooter hoping to cure his leprosy, and Bingwei Ma, a peerless master of  hand-to-hand combat. Only problem is, in order to join them, all these people have to die too.

I quite enjoyed the time I spent with the heroes and antiheroes of Never Die. I found the story to be well-crafted and excellently paced, and I never felt like I was getting bored during the read-through. I especially liked reading the banter between the main characters and the way they gradually grow from being at odds with each other to becoming a close-knit group of friends. My favorite characters by far were Zhihao Chen and Chen Lu, sometimes called Emerald Wind and the Iron Gut, or as they call each other, Green Breeze and Lead Belly. The interplay between those two was just the best. I also especially appreciated Zhihao’s insistence that he is not a good person, even as he continually does the right thing, even grudgingly.

Unfortunately, I’m afraid the other main characters fell a little flat. Cho doesn’t seem to have much personality beyond being obsessed with keeping vows, which felt at best boring and at worst a little stereotypical (I can’t remember if she ever actually uses the word “honor” but you can practically hear her screaming it internally). Then we have Bingwei Ma. Oh, Bingwei Ma, Bingwei Ma, Bingwei Ma. The absolute perfect best martial arts master ever who is stronger than anyone and has never been defeated by anybody and also is just about the nicest person you’ll ever meet and only wants to help starving children and cure injured puppies, and oh, yes, by the way, he’s also super jacked and muscular and everyone thinks he’s super hawt. He does admit near the end that he might have been too prideful, but this doesn’t feel like enough of a flaw to make him believable. But, in his defense, at least he’s not the main character, so we don’t spend a lot of time following in his head.

Although I have very few complaints about the pacing overall, I think a little more time and foreshadowing could have been given to the ending. Major twists seem to come out of nowhere and the whole thing felt very rushed. Statements are made that seem utterly inconsistent with things that happened earlier in the narrative, which are then waved away with a cheap tactic that feels hardly better than “It was just a dream.” I see what Hayes was going for, and I do not think it was poorly done, it just didn’t, sadly, work for me.

Therefore while Never Die was sadly not entirely my cup of tea, I did find it to be an excellently crafted story with some truly spectacular action scenes and some fun character banter moments. I recommend it for anyone who likes shounen anime, larger-than-life badasses, and exciting twists and turns.

r/fantasy 2019 bingo categories

  • Character with a disability (Leprosy)
  • Self-published SFF novel