Book review: The Coward by Stephen Aryan

(cover image courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

ARC courtesy NetGalley – release date 31 August 2021 in Australia.

At the very least, a good fantasy story should allow you to escape the often dreadfully predictable bonds of the everyday and escape into a world that’s nothing like the one you see on your daily commute or when you’re in a queue at a shop in the mall.

But the really good ones, such as Stephen Aryan’s The Coward (the first volume in the Quest For Heroes series), do so much more.

In short, much like skillfully executed science fiction, they shine a light on the human condition and on society as a whole in such a way that you are forced to reassess what it is you think on a particular issue, or issues, as is the case with this superlative piece of fantastical storytelling.

Take just one idea which sits at the heart of The Coward – precisely what is a hero? Are they even real or are they simply very ordinary, fallible people who we build into extraordinarily mythic figures because we need more than ourselves to believe in?

Aryan argues that is very much the latter, with both hero and worshipper caught in a ceaseless pattern that fulfills separate needs for both parties – for the hero a sense of validation and the worshiper the chance to invest life with far more meaning than might be readily apparent.

“All of the strangers stopped a short distance away and one came forward by itself into camp. When the snow cleared he saw the stranger’s face and felt a huge surge of relief. Kell had been holding himself upright with sheer force of will but now he collapsed to one knee.”

This is not to say, of course, that heroes don’t genuinely do heroic things or that the people who hold them in awe aren’t justified in doing so.

Aryan rather beautifully doesn’t besmirch the idea of heroes so much as attempts, rather brilliantly, in fact, to restore some perspective to what it means to be a hero and how this laudably good act can actually have some dark and terrible consequences on those whom society chooses to place upon a pedestal.

The person upon whom this great weight of celebrity and expectation rests is Kell Kressia, who a decade ago at the tender age of seventeen rashly rushed to join 11 heroes of great renown who were headed north to kill the Ice Lich in its frozen castle in order to save the Five Kingdoms from an eternal winter.

Only he returned alive, and while he is celebrated in song by a famous composition by Pax Madina the bard, he bears terrible physical and emotional scars from his great quest north and has barely recovered after spending the time since working his family’s small backwater farm.

By any estimation, Kell has suffered an acute and debilitating case of post-traumatic stress disorder, one so severe that it came close to ruining his life and so when he is all but ordered by the King of Algany, one of the Five Kingdoms, his immediate reaction is to take the money, pretend to go north and then escape to lands far his own and start a new life.

He is branded by Gerren, a young man who follows him solely on the mystique and glories of the bard’s tale, as a coward when it becomes obvious that the man cannot possibly match up to the hype, and in fact, simply wants to escape it all and leave the Five Kingdoms to their eventual peril.

Stephen Aryan (image courtesy Hachette Australia)

Quite what happens after this is best left to the reading, but suffice to say that The Coward empathetically, insightfully, and movingly explores what it is like to be branded a hero and yet only feel like a broken, sad, and fallen man.

As well as telling a breathtakingly excitingly but very groundedly human tale of one man’s wholly reluctant quest to save the world as he knows it, Aryan’s novel also impressively tackles the realpolitik surrounding Kell’s mission.

Sadly, much as we would like to believe otherwise, no great act of heroics is ever truly separated from the underhand machinations of those watching on from the sidelines, and while in the case of Kell’s enemies in the Five Kingdoms, such as Reverend Mother Brasik who heads the church of the Shepherd with ruthless Inquisitional efficiency and terrifyingly cruel religious zealotry, they have much to lose if he fails to stop the great ice evil in the north, they still do everything in their power to undercut him.

If ever you wondered if the world is a lost and broken place, then you’ll find confirmation it really is as Kell’s quest come hard up against the base political machinations of those who are both for and against him.

“Before Kell could ask how she’d done it Willow surprised everyone. Screaming with rage the Alfár swung her weapon at the Lich’s head but the blow was deflected at the last second. An energy barrier sprang up around her and Willow was thrown backwards across the icy platform. Kell didn’t hesitate and immediately lashed out, hacking at her with his sword. There was a blinding flash as Slayer collided with something solid and then time slowed to a crawl.”

And yet for all these artfully explained and deliberated upon serious themes, which explored an affecting look at how completely disparate people can come together to form a close and caring found family, their lives transformed by the experience, The Coward is also a rollicking good adventure.

A thoughtfully intense one yes, with a lot on its artfully expressed mind, but an adventure nonetheless, albeit one where everyone has their feet firmly planted firmly on the frozen ground, one eye on the gaping deficiencies in their own lives and their other on those who might, quite unexpectedly, relieve them of that burden. (It also muses on who the real monsters are – the snowy terrors of the frozen north or the people plotting in sunnier, warmer climes.)

Much like The Lord of the Rings, which was grand and epic in the scope of its adventure and yet well aware of the weight of the darkness that darks all of us and the world around us, The Coward is a magnificently enthralling tale that regales you with creatures of terrifying ice and mist, heroic battles to stay alive and finish the quest, and the tight bonds that form between people when their backs are well and truly against the sub-zero wall.

A fantasy with considerable heart, a knowing sense of the truth of things, and a willingness to peek behind the myth and legend to the cold, hard reality of what it means to be human (or otherwise) and caught up in the messily contrary and exacting business of being alive, The Coward is a brilliantly good read, a novel that seizes the imagination, hold the heart close and stares hard into the soul, all the while reminding us that we can hold adventure and terror in balance and perhaps this is the very inescapable stuff of being human.

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