Today I’m delighted to be reviewing Spirits of Vengeance by Rob J. Hayes which is out in the wild now. This is the latest standalone book in the Mortal Techniques series, which I have loved since the moment I picked up Never Die and I leapt at the opportunity to read this one early – although life delayed the review until today.
Disclaimer – I received a copy in exchange for an honest review, all thoughts are my own.
He’ll die as many times as it takes.
The Ipian Empire was once a land that welcomed dragons and spirits alike, but a century of war and bloodshed saw them all but vanish. Now, the lost things are returning and the Onryo have gathered. Five legendary spirits with mysterious powers, bent on freeing an ancient evil that would wreak havoc on humanity.
Haruto swore his soul to the God of Death for the chance to hunt down the vengeful ghost of his wife. Now an onmyoji, he’s tasked by the Imperial Throne to hunt down monsters and malicious spirits. But he knows not all spirits are evil and not all deserve the peace of the sword.
Kira is a student at Heiwa, an academy for children with dangerous techniques. But she has a secret, she’s not like the other students. When the school is attacked, she flees with one of the tutors, determined to hide both from those who would kill her, and those who would use her.
As a plague of spirits sweeps across the land, the Onryo leave a bloody trail for Haruto to follow. But who’s hunting who?
The Mortal Techniques novels are a series of stand-alone stories that can be read entirely independently, set in the award-winning Mortal Techniques universe.
I freaking loved this book.
Confession right from the start, I have a minor (read ‘massive’) obsession with anything Yokai or Onmyoji related, so even if I hadn’t already read and loved Never Die and Pawn’s Gambit, I would have picked up this one without a second’s hesitation. Now, it must be said right from the start that it isn’t necessary to read those two before diving into Spirits of Vengeance (although why would you want to deny yourself the chance to read two other fantastic books?), as that is one of the strengths of the Mortal Technique series that each book can stand firmly on its own. There are little details – easter eggs if you will, that you will pick up on if you’ve already read them, but it will not detract from your enjoyment. Especially as Spirits of Vengeance is one of those books that draws you in completely and demands your attention.
Since I already mentioned Yokai and I really do love them, I’m going to start there – and with the research that clearly went into not just this aspect (but the world as a whole). In the run-up to the release of this book, Hayes shared info about different Yokai across on his Twitter (and it is really worth going to check that out). This research did not result in info-dumping – there is none of that here (or in any book I’ve read by the author so far), but rather in a wonderfully, multi-layered world, where the different aspects – whether natural or supernatural, human or yokai are seamlessly woven together. It felt incredibly organic all the way through, and when paired with the vivid descriptions it really brought everything not only together but to life. I also liked that not only where the Yokai given that organic feel, but that they weren’t just portrayed as monsters – although some of them are certainly monstrous – and that they were as varied as the rest of the characters in terms of how they were viewed, and what kind of fate might await them.
“Yokai aren’t evil,” Haruto continued. “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, anyone who chooses to use them to commit atrocities is evil. Because that is the choice they have made.”
Another aspect tied to the Yokai, but just limited to them, was how stories were used within the story itself. Tales of Yokai, like so many folktales, are stories that are supposed to be told, and Hayes has used that to add yet another dimension to this book. Having Guang telling us the stories within the book, weaving them as folktales, was not only a clever way of building up the lore and culture of the world itself – with the variations between the different peoples, and the similarities that can be found within folktales, but pulled you even further. There is something about that form of storytelling that feels more intimate and demands that you huddle close and listen closely – and honestly, it was one of my favourite parts of the book.
But there, standing before the Seafolk horde, was a single woman. She was tall and lithe, as many of the Nash is. Her skin shone like gold and her hair was dark as coal. The Seafolk laughed. A single woman against a horde? They came at her in ones and twos and she slew them. They came at her in tens and twenties and she cut them down. They came at her as an uncountable horde and she laid them waste.
It would be wrong to say that was the only focus of this book though, because although the main story thread is the gathering of the Onryo – five legendary spirits seeking to free an ancient evil and destroy humankind, and the efforts to stop them. It is just one thread among many. Because, at its heart Spirits of Vengeance is a story about its characters – and what characters. I’ve always loved how Hayes writes his characters (even those who may drive you up the wall, or who are reprehensible in some way), and I will forever class Eska from The War Eternal as one of the most memorable characters I’ve read. However, in this book, I have to say that it feels as though he’s taken that to another level, especially with Yanmei who we have met previously as a side character but has stepped out into the limelight here.
Our four main characters each have their own goals and histories, and some have lived for an eternity while others are young and learning about their abilities, and yet Hayes has made them all so very human, and believable. As the title might suggest, vengeance is a major theme of this book and therefore these characters, but it would be wrong to see this as the only theme or driving force at play here, and even within the context of ‘vengeance’ so much was explored. There is nothing simple about that goal or emotion, and through these characters and what they experience, Hayes not only demonstrates that but explores what it means and the impact it can have. This is done through choices and interactions, but also through the myriad other themes that are woven throughout this story – love, kindness and friendship with a lovely dose of found family, courage and redemption, and choice. Themes that wouldn’t have been as effective were it not for how beautifully crafted these characters were, and because of that backdrop of ‘vengeance’.
Haruto was probably my favourite – but only by a narrow margin, and I was a little biased by the fact that he was an Omynoji. There’s always an added dimension when reading about an immortal character, because of the additional experience that comes with that lifespan – and how that feeds into the person they are now, especially for characters like Haruto who have endured and suffered a lot, but was using that to move forward. His motivations and reasons were understandable, and it was easy to become invested in his story. Although it must be said that the limelight was definitely stolen by his spirit companion Shiki, whose antics and personality was a charming addition to the group. However, Guang ( a poet) was certainly not overshadowed, and the bond – layered with understanding, friendship and shared goal – between him and Haruto were fantastic, and they played off one another wonderfully.
Yanmei and Kira are not to be forgotten though. As mentioned before Yanmei is a character we’ve met before, but has now stepped out into the light – and again, it doesn’t hurt if you haven’t read the previous books, because the development she undergoes in this book is spectacular but as organic as the rest of the book. As much as I enjoyed the friendship between Guang and Haruto, I think it was the relationship between Yanmei and Kira that I enjoyed the most. Kira on her own is a fantastic character, and what Hayes does with her abilities – from the training she undergoes to more practical use is stellar. However, together, Kira and Yanmei truly shine, and I couldn’t get enough of reading about them.
Kira often couldn’t see the good path, but it was always clear to Yanmei. She was Kira’s guiding light. Kira couldn’t remember what it was like to have a mother, but some other students at Heiwa said a mother was comforting yet strict, loving and encouraging, always there and always on your side. As far as Kira was concerned, that described Yanmei perfectly.
I can’t finish this review without mentioning the action. Hayes has always had a way of writing action and magic that leaves you on the edge of your seat and holding your breath, and he’s taken that to another level here. Anyone, who has ever watched the epic battles in anime, especially shonen anime, will feel a pang of familiarity at the battle scenes in this book. These battles were cinematic to say the least and utterly gripping, heightened by the fact that we were so invested in the characters – and therefore the stakes of each battle, that it felt like we were riding on the outcome of the fight as well.
Spirits of Vengeance is a stunning book outside – I mean just look at that cover art! – and in. I went into this book with very high expectations as I’ve loved every book I’ve read by Rob J. Hayes, and this book blew those expectations out of the water – his writing, characterisation and world-building is always top-notch, but there was something special about this one that really shone, and if you haven’t already picked it up what are you doing? This is a book and series that you really need to read.
If you’ve read it, or read it in the future, please feel free to shout at me about this fantastic book.