THE COWARD by Stephen Aryan (BOOK REVIEW)
The Coward is the first instalment in The Quest for Heroes duology by Stephen Aryan. Although Aryan has published two previous series, this is actually my first taste of the authors’ work and it must be said, I was by no means disappointed. The Coward is a fantastic thought-provoking exploration of what it truly means to be a hero when legends and myths are stripped away and truths are revealed.
The story follows Kell Kressier, once a legendary hero who at just seventeen years of age went on a quest with a band of infamous warriors to the frozen North to slay the Ice Lich, who was causing an unnaturally long and harsh winter throughout the Five Kingdoms. Unfortunately Kell was the only warrior to live to tell the tale from that journey, and the memories have haunted him ever since. Where our story begins, ten years have passed and once again a deep cold is creeping from the North and spreading its way through the Kingdoms. Kell is called upon to take the journey to the North for a second time, and slay whatever new or old evil dwells there now. The problem is Kell is not the hero the legends have portrayed him to be, and he has no intention of reliving his nightmares and risking his life ever again.
From the very beginning Aryan clearly illustrates the differences between myth and ‘men’. A majority of the opening chapters consist of stories within stories, where we hear tales of the former heroes Kell journeyed with, most told through rose-tinted glasses, until Kell debunks those myths and gives us the truth. He shows us how stories can be twisted to paint a prettier scene, whereas in reality all the heroes had flaws, they were violent brutal men, whose deeds were often cruel, their journey had been harrowing, and their deaths had been far from peaceful, they had all tasted fear.
“ Somewhere along the way the youth who’d set off on the journey had died. A broken man had ridden home in his place. Kell had tried to put the pieces back together but they never fit right. There was no going back. The past was immutable.”
Aryan vividly paints a picture of the horrors Kell and the other ‘heroes’ faced on their first journey and the realities of the toll it had taken on Kell. He is a character left with PTSD and anxiety, seeking only solitude, he can never quite leave behind all the dread he had faced, much as a soldier never leaves behind the aftermaths of war. It was never a tale with a happy ending as the bards sing of, it was a tale filled with blood and gore. Kell may seem a reluctant hero, but when you look beneath the surface, you can completely understand why.
As the story progresses, and Kell comes to a decision, he prepares to gather a team to take to the North with him to better their chances of success or even just survival, and we begin to see these horrors in an even starker light as a new set of warriors emerge. However, as much as Kell was a somewhat austere character, I appreciated that many of Aryan’s other characters brought much humour and light-hearted scenes throughout. Gerren, our youngest member, Vahli the mysterious bard, feisty Bronwyn of Kinnan, boastful Malormir, and Willow the Alfar, formed quite the entertaining ragtag crew, who made me laugh on several occasions. Yes their journey and the terrain they travelled through was ruthless, the North is a bitterly cold place, full of hidden supernatural monsters, and each of them have their limits tested, but their story is not without moments of joy and companionship either.
I particularly enjoyed the great coming-of-age story arc from Gerren. His progression throughout the book felt realistic as he goes from being an idealistic hero, with notions of valiant deeds, to quite sullen and petulant, and finally to being a man who truly appreciated what it meant to be alive, what it meant to have comradeship, to being a part of history.
I also absolutely loved Willow, our non-human character. I felt the significance of the Alfar was to show us that even though they’re different, deemed as savage allusive beasts, and even though people show them much prejudice, Willow is still willing to go where most men won’t. She is still willing to risk her life and help her friends, when most men turned their backs. Aryan admirably reflects that at the end of the day it is people’s deeds which count, not where they come from, what race, gender or even what species they are. Out of all the characters, I believe she was the true hero.
Outside of this band of characters was Revenant Mother Britak. An aging woman who was a devout believer of The Shepherd. Actually, devout is putting it mildly, she was more of a fanatic. Through her character we see a bigger picture of a looming threat amongst the Five Kingdoms, for Britak seeked to eradicate those who she deemed as heretical. I’m not entirely sure if I was supposed to find this character rather darkly humorous, but nevertheless I did. Britak is also a fascinating character though, as her own ignorance makes her more monstrous than the actual monsters of the North.
“Saving people from themselves was never easy. Progress was always an uphill struggle but she was strong enough to shoulder the burden, alone, if necessary.”
I did find some of Kell’s initial journeying a touch repetitive as he visited many taverns searching for warriors to join in his quest. However, during part three the narrative certainly picks up the pace and hits us with such heart-pounding battles against an array of monsters from The North. I kid you not, Aryan fantastically delivered an action-packed, unputdownable ending.
Lastly, I have to say how much I loved the gorgeous map by Tom Parker. It really enhanced my enjoyment as I kept searching where the characters were on the map and how much further they had to travel. Aryan also mentioned there were Easter eggs within the map, I did find one, but I’m going to have to study it harder to find more! Or just cheat and ask Stephen Aryan for the answers!
ARC provided by Caroline at Angry Robot Books in exchange for an honest review. Thank you for the copy! The Coward is out now.