The Coward by Stephen Aryan
Author: Stephen Aryan
Titile: The Coward
Series:Quest for Heroes #1
Publisher: Angry Robot Books
About the Book
Who will take up the mantle and slay the evil in the Frozen North, saving all from death and destruction? Not Kell Kressia, he's done his part...
Kell Kressia is a legend, a celebrity, a hero. Aged just seventeen he set out on an epic quest with a band of grizzled fighters to slay the Ice Lich and save the world, but only he returned victorious. The Lich was dead, the ice receded and the Five Kingdoms were safe.
Ten years have passed Kell lives a quiet farmer's life, while stories about his heroism are told in every tavern across the length and breadth of the land. But now a new terror has arisen in the north. Beyond the frozen circle, north of the Frostrunner clans, something has taken up residence in the Lich's abandoned castle. And the ice is beginning to creep south once more.
For the second time, Kell is called upon to take up his famous sword, Slayer, and battle the forces of darkness. But he has a terrible secret that nobody knows. He's not a hero - he was just lucky. Everyone puts their faith in Kell the Legend, but he's a coward who has no intention of risking his life for anyone...
As is often the case this year, I have come to already established authors through their newest releases, and whilst I have had a number of Stephen Aryan books on my Kindle for ages, for some reason I have only just gotten around to reading his books, with The Coward.
Now, I actually listened to the Coward on audio. I tend to use audio for those books that I may not wish to review, but simply want to enjoy without my reviewing head on. It's a little like my sanctuary from my reviewing life where I just enjoy what I am reading. Although this is not always the case and with The Coward I simply could not leave this book without sharing my views on it.
I thought that this book was utterly stunning and I loved every minute of it. I couldn't leave it alone and found every excuse to tootle off and listen to Stephen Aryan's new book.
In The Coward, Stephen Aryan explores the myth of the hero, and what makes a hero. He goes about this by carefully deconstructing what we consider makes a person want to go out and fight the ominous evil presence, and after he has tore down the group of heroes and has shown them warts and all in their stark reality, he then sets about reconstructing the legend of his main hero Kell Kressier, who The Coward centres around.
When we we first meet Kell Kressier, the only surviving member of a group of heroes who ventured North to fight the Ice Lich who was causing disaster and mayhem by altering the climate of the surrounding countries. To many people he is a hero. He killed the Ice Lich with his blade, Slayer. He is a saviour, are as those who travelled with him. Songs are sung about him and in the intervening years, the saga of Kell Kressier and the twelve heroes has passed into legend.
However, Kell Kressier does not feel like a hero. He knows the truth of the legend and he is a broken man, plagued by nightmares, suffering from the after effects of the journey that killed the heroes and nearly took his life. All he wants is to be left alone to tend his farm and live his life in obscurity.
But this is not meant to be. Once again, there are portents that something evil has risen in the North. The weather is changing again, starvation threatens the people and Kell has been summoned to see the king, and he is tasked with traveling North to determine if the signs are true and the Ice Lich has indeed risen again. But he has no intention of returning to the North. Instead his motivation for going is to quietly steal away and begin a new life.
However, things don't go according to plan when he meets the idealistic young Gerren, who idolises Kell and the heroes. However, as is often the case, our heroes are actually real people and are generally not the person that we envisage. Subsequently, this disappointment leads Gerren to instigate a plan of his own and force Kell to accept his responsibility and also for Gerren to become the hero.
I found The Coward compelling from start to finish and adored Stephen Aryan's writing.
The story itself is like an anti Beowulf. Instead of the heroes traveling North to rid the world of this threat, happily carousing, drinking and telling stories of daring do. In The Coward, our heroes experience hardship, danger and infighting.
Each of the characters is vivid in their realisation. Gerren, the annoyingly self righteous hero wannabe starts the tale by being irritating, but yet charming in his own way. Vahli the bard who attaches himself to the party in order to write the tale of journey is vain, arrogant and self serving. Bronwen is the quiet warrior type. Malomar is the comedic element and Willow the Alfar is mysterious. And then there is our leader, Kell Kressier, whose sole job at the beginning is strip away any semblance of fancy about the heroes of ages past and provide a harsh dose of reality
However, as the story progresses we learn more about our individual members and Stephen Aryan cleverly builds an emotional connection to each one and much like the stories, he then shows us the complexities and contradictions of each member of the gathered party.
In the midst of this, he sneakily puts some pretty prescient social commentary under the hood. For instance, the trend of rich, entitled prigs wanting their pictures painted with the dead animals that they have killed, or the effects of our actions upon the environment and the effects of climate change upon the world. In addition to this he also has a comment on social media, particularly on how it presents people as not a true representation of their real selves. Throughout the story, there are constant references to Pax Medina's saga and how Kell is nothing like his social persona.
The book is done quite cinematically, with the structure set in three distinct acts, each with their own tone. Intially, I found the book to be quite sombre in its tone as Aryan explores the effects of the initial journey on Kell and also the price of fame. However, as the book progresses, the tones shift slightly to become lighter and more hopeful as Kell accepts his responsibility and also changes his view, in that instead of this being a horror of journeys past, it will be quite cathartic and actually aid him in reconciling his past so that he can move on with his life.
I found that Stephen Aryan's antagonists in the story to be as interesting. For me, whilst we have the tangible bad guy with the Ice Lich, Stephen Aryan also uses other sources of antagonism that shift throughout the book.
And with this we have the Reverend Mother Britak. The zealously duplicitous leader of the church. Intially, we see her as quite benevolent in her ministrations. However, it quickly becomes apparent that she is anything but. And I must draw attention to her rant against seagulls, which had me quietly sniggering to myself. As we learn more about Reverend Mother Britak, we find that she is not who she appears to be as she plots, schemes, tortures and bullies her way to get what she wants.
Throughout the story, Stephen Aryan subvertively tells you what is going to happen, and what to expect. However, the heroes face each each encounter that tests their resolve there is one underlying antagonist that party are battling against. The environment. I found particularly that as we move to about halfway through the second act, the story shifts a gear and it becomes more of survivalist tale as the party battle the elements and the creatures that inhabit the frozen North to reach their destination.
Now I could wax (un) lyrical about this book for ages, but I think that if I did I would spoil it for you, and that is something I don't want to do. This book was a delight to read and I cannot wait to read the next one.