“Everyone puts their faith in Kell, the Legend, but he’s just a coward who has no intention of risking his life for anyone…”
Such is the premise of Stephen Aryan’s action-packed and thought-provoking heroic fantasy, “The Coward”, Book One of “The Quest for Heroes” series. I’d been eyeing this book for quite some time, based on great reviews and the outstanding social media presence of the author, who puts together some phenomenal videos, providing advice for authors.
Aryan takes a comfortable and beloved fantasy trope – the sage veteran, reluctant hero of many sagas who is signed up for one last impossible quest – and does something very interesting and unique with it. Our protagonist Kell is heralded as a great saviour, because, at seventeen, he accompanied a group of legends to the remote northernmost parts of the continent, on a desperate quest to save mankind.
All the legends perished, however Kell not only managed to survive but also slay the dreaded Ice Lich, a horrible monster responsible for trying to turn the continent into permafrost. But in actuality Kell just was plain fortunate to live, not because of otherworldly fighting skills and unshakeable courage.
Following the quest, Kell has PTSD, haunted by the quest, and is somewhat of a recluse. He tries to subsist, in quiet and somewhat ineffectual fashion, as a farmer, in the ten years that have elapsed since his famous journey. Kell certainly did not get riches from his supposed heroism but he certainly got fame, which greatly displeases him. He generally just wants to be left alone.
Moreover he feels he’s cursed since his adventure. His relationships and prospects seem to always fail, and the real truth of what happened on the quest is a weight on his shoulders. But all anybody in the kingdom of Algany wants to know is about the heroes Kell travelled with north, and revel in tales of the great deeds.
Kell resents his celebrity status, but it’s that status that gets him summoned back to the King of Algany’s court, when the weather pattern takes a turn for the worse, and it seems like Kell’s old nemesis, the Ice Lich has returned.
Kell is requested once more to put his life on the line in the service of the Five Kingdoms, but he’s learned his lesson. Older and wiser now he’s all about self-preservation. Since this time he’s getting paid handsomely to be a hero, he plans instead to take the money and run, bail on the quest completely, and start a new life elsewhere. Hence, of course, the book title, “The Coward”.
This book checks all the boxes for a sword and sorcery narrative, with terrifying fantastic beasts, unique races and cultures, plotting and scheming, and life-and-death conflicts. But let’s chat about the characters. Kell is a gruff, damaged, bitter lead, with lots of heart underneath the grim exterior. I loved his humour and pragmatism,
“Diarrhea can kill the same as a sword.”
His surrounding cast are really fun, from the obstinate and naive Gerren who thinks he’s the new version of old (young) Kell, the redoubtable warrior Bronwyn, mysterious bard Vahli, madman king Malomir, and the ambiguous creature Willow. Aryan’s characters were for me the strongest part of the novel – well fleshed-out, and very interesting.
My favourite character in the book by far though was Britak, the Reverend Mother, leader of the Shepherd faith, who is the other main POV to contrast with Kell. This papal-like figure is no benevolent ruler of her religion. She oversees with an iron fist, a hand ready to cut out any and all opposition to her church decisively, like a gangrenous wound. She will not rest until the Shepherd faith dominates the Five Kingdoms, though she knows she’s running out of time to see her vision to fruition, as she battles age and senility. She hides her decline by enforcing even more extreme measures against those who stand in the way of her dream.
The Reverend Mother has the right amount of sanctimonious piety, fanaticism (including self-flagellation), self-righteousness, bigotry, religious intolerance for non-worshipers and other faiths, cruelty, Machiavellian brilliance and utter ruthlessness, to be just the type of character that fascinates me. An antagonist who thinks they are a protagonist, and is justified to do complete evil in order to do good.
She is a puppet-mistress who is pulling the strings on a lot of plots, and is part of the real influence behind some of the Five Kingdom thrones. She wants Kell dead, for her own reasons, and she’s been trying periodically to have him offed for a while. Now that he’s returning to the north, she’s determined to finish the job.
Aryan did an amazing job with this villain and I am looking forward to reading more of her dastardliness done in the name of the Shepherd. This kind of memorable character will always seal the deal for me in terms of how much I like the book, and the Reverend Mother was standout, taking this read easily into five-star territory.
Aryan’s prose is succinct, clear, witty, and sharp. He doesn’t waste words, yet conveys a great sense of the scene in his economy of dialogue and exposition. I believe Aryan has a military background. Accordingly, his combat scenes are excellent: blistering, quick, and bloody. He’s wonderful at creeping the reader out during the build up to these fights, as more dire circumstances and scarier monsters emerge from the gloom of the bitingly frozen wastes, with each mile deeper into the North towards the Lich’s ice castle.
The world building is equally business-like, but definitely descriptive enough for the reader to maintain a keen sense of setting and pace along with the characters as they move north and into increasingly greater danger.
I did enjoy the excerpts at the beginning of each chapter from the saga of the bard who told the tale of the original heroes, that sort of thing is a nice worldbuilding touch that for me always lends authenticity to made-up places.
Verdict: this was an engaging, fast-paced and very well done first installment that nicely sets up the rest of the series! Gimme another, bring on “The Warrior”!