The Coward by Stephen Aryan

The Coward Cover

Publisher: Angry Robot (Audiobook – 28 April 2021)

Series: Quest for Heroes – Book One

Length: 14 hours and 50 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Amazon     Book Depository

Prepare for a legendary quest with a complex and damaged hero as bestselling author Stephen Aryan presents the first book in his new fantasy duology, The Coward.

Aryan is an awesome fantasy author who has been writing some great books over the last few years.  Aryan debuted back in 2015 with Battlemage, the first book in The Age of Darkness trilogy, which focused on a brutal magical war.  After finishing this initial trilogy, Aryan released a sequel trilogy, the Age of Dread trilogy, which was set 10 years after the events of the first trilogy, which focused on the consequences of the first trilogy, especially the fear and prejudice its magical war brought on every mage in this fantasy world.  I ended up reading the second book in this trilogy, Magefall, and quite enjoyed its interesting story.  Unfortunately, I never got a chance to finish the trilogy off or go back and check out some of the earlier books, which I kind of regret.  But I did get the chance last year to read the first book in his new series, The Coward, the first instalment of the Quest for Heroes duology.

Everyone in the Five Kingdoms knows the legend of Kell Kressia, the most renowned hero in all the lands.  At the young age of 17, Kell volunteered to join a band of legendary warriors and heroes on their greatest quest ever: travelling to the far north and killing the Ice Lich to save the world.  Twelve men ventured to the north, and only Kell returned, having slain the Ice Lich, leaving the land’s greatest heroes behind in death.  Kell’s fame as a hero spread throughout the land thanks to song and story.  However, not everything you hear in stories is true.

Ten years later, Kell is living the simple life on his family’s farm, content with the peace and quiet and avoiding people where possible.  However, fate has a funny way of catching up with heroes, and when word reaches the kingdoms of further trouble in the north, Kell is called for once again.  A terrible evil is said to have taken root in the fortress of the Ice Lich, and their power threatens the entire world.

Taking up his famous sword and ready to revisit the dangers up north, Kell sets out.  However, Kell is carrying a dark and desperate secret: he is no true hero; instead he is just a lucky man broken by his experiences and with no intention of returning to hell.  However, caught up in his own legend, and with a new band of heroes forming around him, Kell has no choice but to once again venture forth, even if it means his death.  Everyone is convinced that Kell will once again save the world, but can the hero win when he doesn’t even believe in himself?

This was a fantastic and clever fantasy novel from Aryan that I had an excellent time reading.  Aryan came up with an outstanding story for The Coward, based on a complex protagonist forced to relive his worst experiences.  I deeply enjoyed this cool novel and I managed to power through its entertaining and compelling narrative in no time at all.

The Coward has an awesome and captivating plot that quickly draws the reader in and ensures that they are held captive by the compelling quest.  I was honestly a fan of this book the moment I read the first line: “Kell Kressia, slayer of the Ice Lich and saviour of the Five Kingdoms, tripped on a rake and fell into a pile of horse shit.”  This perfectly set the scene for the entire novel, and showcased Aryan’s fun and compelling take on classic fantasy quest heroes.  The story initially develops primarily around Kell and showcases his severe emotional damage, as well as the fact that the legendary events of the past are mostly false, no matter what the bards and histories say.  Quickly dragged back into the fray by an ambitious king, Kell is tasked with travelling back to the scene of his last adventure and killing whatever evil he discovers there.  Naturally Kell, having learnt his lesson the first time, graciously accepts the request, and then tries to run away the first chance he gets.  However, thanks to a starstruck young man following in his footsteps, Kell is trapped into the mission and decides the best way to survive is to recruit a new bunch of heroes, and soon pulls together a small, eclectic group of rogues and warriors to take up the quest.

Most of these events take place in the first half of the book, and you really get to grips with the central characters while also fully understanding Kell and his pain.  Interspersed with flashbacks to the true story of the original quest, Aryan does a wonderful job of painting the risks of the upcoming journey to the reader, and you know that some brutal events are in store for the protagonists in the future.  At the same time, there is an excellent subplot that shows political intrigue throughout the Five Kingdoms, as a nefarious church attempts to take control of the lands, while the kings use Kell and his quest as pawns in a great political game.  This results in some dangerous moments for the protagonists on their way to their destination, and I liked the compelling and thrilling change of pace the dive into court politics presented.

Everything leads up to the big trek up North that dominates the second half of the book.  What follows is a bleak and captivating series of events that ensures that Kell and his companions hit every single monster and deadly creature that the author could think off, including wraiths, cunning ice sharks and an aggressive herd of lethal arctic beasts.  These scenes are all written extremely well, and Aryan does an excellent job of showcasing the deadly stakes of the mission, and there is even a memorable, and frankly surprising, tragedy just before the final major sequence.  This sequence, which sees the heroes re-enter the Ice Lich’s fortress, is paced extremely well, and leads to a brutal and intense final confrontation with their enemy.  While I did think that Aryan was a little too mysterious when it came to who or what this antagonist was, they certainly left their mark on the story, and it was fascinating to see their impacts.  Aryan fits in a couple of concluding chapters to set up the characters for the next book, while also containing some interesting surprises that will come into play in the future.  The reader comes away from The Coward extremely satisfied, and I felt that this was a very well-crafted narrative that not only stands on its own, but which leaves the reader curious to find out what happens next.

I deeply enjoyed the way that Aryan set this entire narrative up, and I felt that all the distinctive narrative threads fell into place extremely well.  Running at a swift and enjoyable pace, The Coward’s fantastic and elaborate story quickly drags you in, especially with its focus on a damaged protagonist and his new quest.  The author was extremely good at balancing deep and damaging character insights with a fast-paced action narrative, and you really had to feel for the protagonist as he revisited his trauma, while also selfishly encouraging him to keep going with the quest.  There is an excellent layer of dark humour over the entire story, and I liked how the action and adventure of the main storyline was well balanced by the alternate scenes of political intrigue that also set up the main villain of the second book.  I also deeply appreciated the captivating and clever dive into the dark side of an epic fantasy quest, and the traumatic memories of the events really shape the protagonist and the narrative in some excellent ways, while also proving to be an interesting and fun alternate perspective of classic fantasy novels.  Aryan features several fun allusions and homages to other iconic fantasy works in this book, and I appreciated his distinctive take on how a classic fantasy story adventure would really go.

I also quite enjoyed the fantastic and impressive new fantasy landscape that Aryan introduced in The Coward.  This first book is set in the Five Kingdoms, a collection of lands who are currently experiencing hardship, especially with a poor harvest and the increasing cold.  Despite the efforts of the authoritarian Church of the Shepherd to quash them, rumours abound that the Five Kingdoms are facing a threat from the north again, just like they did years before.  Aryan does a great job setting up the Five Kingdoms, and you swiftly get an idea of the many problems and conflicts befalling them, especially as their church is slowly increasing its influence and power, attempting to undermine its kings.  This proves rich ground for the early part of the narrative, and it was amazing to get introduced to this land.  I particularly loved the exploration of the myth of the protagonist throughout the lands, and the impact it had on the people, both in terms of morale and celebration, as well as politically.  Having multiple characters recite a famous in-universe retelling of the original quest was particularly fun, especially as the inconsistencies and blatant lies attached to them soon become extremely apparent.  The best setting in the entire book, however, was easily the North, were much of the second half of the book takes place.  Although it is similar to other famous fantasy winter landscapes, Aryan works to make his fairly distinctive, especially with the unique creatures and threats that lurk within.  The author really makes the landscape seem as brutal, barren and isolated as possible, and it is very intense to see the characters travel through it, particularly when Kell encounters remnants of the original quest, and is forced to relive his previous horrors again.  I had a lot of fun exploring Aryan’s intriguing world in this book and I look forward to seeing how it is expanded out in the sequel.

While I deeply enjoyed the narrative and had a great time exploring the new fantasy realm, easily the best thing about this book is the character work.  Aryan has done a real masterclass with some of the characters in The Coward, and you swiftly get attached to the main band of heroes, especially the protagonist Kell Kressia, all of whom are damaged or hiding something.  Watching them endure through terrible hardship and come together as a group is just wonderful, and I loved how attached I ended up feeling them as the novel progressed.

Most of the focus of the plot is directed to Kell Kressia, the titular coward.  Kell is a fantastic and memorable figure who draws you in with his unique story of woe.  The lone survivor of a legendary quest he undertook as a naïve teenager, Kell suffered a lot during the previous journey, and despite the renown and love lauded upon him, Kell ended up with nothing to show for his quest and has lived a simple life ever since.  In the current story, Kell has grown up significantly and is now content to be alone.  However, when he is sent on another quest, he attempts to flee, only to be dragged in against his will.  I really appreciated the development that Aryan put into Kell, especially as I figured that the twist would be that he’s a fraud.  However, despite the title, you realise that Kell isn’t really a coward; instead he is a deeply traumatised man who is now wise enough not to repeat the mistakes of his youth.  Rather than seeking battle, he tries to avoid it, but when he is forced to complete the quest, he reveals himself to be quite competent and able to lead his companions, even if he doesn’t want to.  I had an amazing time with Kell in this book, and you really sympathise with him once you find out the whole truth behind him.  I loved seeing how much he matured since the original quest, and the canny and realistic new hero is a very understandable figure as a result.  Aryan builds in a bit of closure for Kell in The Coward, especially as he comes to terms with the dark events from his past and finally starts to move on, but he does have to suffer some more tragedy along the way.  I also liked seeing him manipulate and utilise his status as a legendary hero throughout the book, even if he doesn’t believe it, and it was fun to see people who knew in the past underestimate him, not realising how much he’s grown up.  Kell is an excellent and impressive protagonist, and I can’t wait to see what Aryan puts him through next.

Another major character I need to highlight is Gerren, a young and idealistic teenager.  Following Kell’s example from the stories, Gerren finds Kell on his quest and stubbornly follows along, attempting to become a hero in his own right, despite Kell’s many attempts to get rid of him.  Realising that Kell doesn’t want to be there and means to run away, Gerren becomes quite angry and uses Kell’s own legend to trap him in the quest.  However, the further he travels with Kell and the heroes, the more he realises that Kell was right, and he soon regrets his decision.  I loved how Aryan used Gerren in The Coward, as the character essentially ends up being a younger version of Kell, making all the mistakes that his hero did, and becoming a dark mirror to him.  Watching Gerren mimic Kell’s life is pretty moving for all involved, and I loved seeing Kell’s reaction, especially as he tries to save Gerren from all the pain he suffered, which results in some amazing scenes.  Aside from being an emotional anchor on Kell, Gerren also goes through quite a lot of development in his storyline, as he grows from naïve kid to serious adventurer.  Watching his resentment to Kell grow and then fade when he realises what Kell was trying to protect him from is amazing, and you really wish that he would turn back at some point, not just for his sake but for Kell’s.  You also grow really attached to Gerren as the book goes on, and he served as an intriguing companion to the protagonist and really helped amp up the dramatic heft of Kell’s trauma.

Aside from Kell and Gerren, I really must highlight the rest of the fantastic band of heroes that travel with him, as Aryan brings together an eclectic and complex group, each of whom are there for very different reasons.  This includes the mysterious but entertaining bard Vahli, the hilarious pairing of Bronwyn and Malormir, two outrageous heroes with many a tale behind their deeds, and the monstrous but heroic non-human character of Willow.  Willow is probably the most intriguing out of these, as her entire species is something of a mystery, with a strange connection to the events of the plot.  Willow grows to be quite a significant figure as the book continues, and I am looking forward to seeing how the author expands on her in the future.  All these characters and more (the villainous Revenant Mother Britak was a fantastic secondary antagonist), were very impressive, and their unique and powerful adventure, as well as the many deep secrets in their past, help to turn The Coward into an exceptional character driven novel.

Like many great epic fantasy books, I would strongly recommend The Coward’s audiobook format.  Narrated by actor Matt Wycliffe, The Coward flows along at an excellent pace as an audiobook, and you really get caught up in the adventure and epic fight scenes out on the snow.  Wycliffe does some amazing and fitting voices for the various characters, and you really get caught up in their personalities and emotional depths through this narration.  With a run time of just under 15 hours, this is a slightly lengthy audiobook to get through, but I found myself powering through a very short amount of time thanks to the compelling story and characters.  A wonderful way to enjoy this amazing and clever novel.

Overall, The Coward by Stephen Aryan was one of the more captivating and intriguing fantasy novels of 2021 and it is one that is well worth checking out.  I loved elaborate narrative and impressive character work in this outstanding read, and readers will find themselves getting dragged into its compelling adventure tale.  I had an exceptional time with The Coward last year, and I really regret not reviewing it sooner.  I will hopefully read the next book in this duology, The Warrior, in the coming weeks, and I have no doubt it will be just as awesome as The Coward.

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