Review: Spirits of Vengeance by Rob J Hayes

The doyen of indie fantasy delivers with this sharp novel, written in prose that cuts like a katana through the mind’s eye.

The wandering swordsman Haruto travels through a frozen frontier, using his supernatural gifts to cleanse the land of evil spirits. A crew of powerful demons seek to unleash a new terror on the world. Haruto, driven by vengeance, will confront these vile things and try to take them down before all is lost.

Spirits of Vengeance is a treat to read. Rob J Hayes achieves that rare feat of good writing, giving you the wonderful sensation where the words on the page seem to fall away before your eyes as you find yourself immersed in the story. The prose is crisply defined, the cumulative effects of imagery and action precisely delivered.

This is a stand-alone story set in the Mortal Techniques world, the third in the series. And yes, you can read this novel without having read the others.

The visual art and folklore of Japan dating back centuries is replete with images and tales of bizarre ghosts and demons. Hayes has plumbed the well of ukiyo-e, manga and anime, and drawn up a modern interpretation of this folkloric world. His reinterpretation is so polished that it glows.

It’s also fun. The main cast of characters are likeable, the villains despicable. The swordsman Haruto and his travelling companions keep up a continual patter of banter, their interactions and personal stories helping to flesh out the world of Ipia and its history. And the evil spirits trying to unleash terror upon the world, while cruel and horrible, are undeniably cool.

Where the novel really gets rocking is in the fight scenes, which are plentiful. Anyone with a passing acquaintanceship with Japanese animation will find their imagination filled with familiar imagery: glowing swords, menacing monsters summoning dark powers, blood spattering across snow, heroes gritting their teeth as they are pierced with many wounds but fight on. Hayes has mastered the difficult art of portraying violent supernatural action, and his descriptions of combat resonate with clarity, energy and verve.

But the most impressive feat of Spirits of Vengeance is the vision of Japanese folk horror brought to life. The land of Ipia is a direct analogue of feudal Japan, with representations of culture and folklore being imported wholesale. In clumsier hands this could come across as a botched transplant. But with Hayes in charge it works beautifully. Ipia is at once a bright new world, and immediately familiar to anyone who has watched cartoons on a Saturday morning, or seen a Studio Ghibli movie, or passed a Japanese screen print in an art gallery. Hayes has done his research, absorbed the cultural products of Japan and processed them into something fresh and vibrant.

The hierarchies of supernatural creatures are thoroughly worked out, from the lowliest house-spirit to the most powerful god. How the spirits are created in moments of violence and pain is well-defined, how they are rendered in their encounters with Haruto is wonderfully detailed. The creatures that populate the pages of Spirits of Vengeance are lovingly brought to life and presented to the reader without flaw.

The cover deserves special mention for becoming an instant classic of indie fantasy. Felix Ortiz and Shawn King have combined to create this visual treat that is sure to draw the eye of readers.

Spirits of Vengeance delivers both super-charged action and nuanced character development, and is a novel that deserves to find a large an appreciative audience.