THE COWARD by Stephen Aryan.
Angry Robot Books. p/b. £9.99.
Reviewed by Elloise Hopkins.
Kell Kressia may have been Slayer of the Ice Lich and Saviour of the Five Kingdoms, but now he is nothing but a farmer. A peaceful life is what he wanted after his famed journey north in the protection of his king and their lives. He may not have wholly got it, but there has been some solace for this former hero. It has been ten years, the memories put behind him if not forgotten. Yet no matter how hard he tries to move on, Kell cannot deny that the seasons have changed, and this is the second poor harvest in a row.
The heroes are all dead. Kell was the only one who returned alive after taking the Ice Lich’s head and restoring peace. The bards fully exaggerated the tales, of course; the true horrors were never told. He was lucky, not heroic. Still, a summons from the king can only be ignored so many times. Kell has no choice but to return to the Ice Lich’s castle. The further he travels from his simple life, the harder it is to avoid facing the frozen horrors that await him, and all Kell can do is wonder whether he will be so lucky as to return alive a second time.
The Coward brings us a band of heroes on a seemingly doomed quest, part exploration of religious and racial prejudice and in small part a homage to A Song of Ice and Fire and many traditional fantasy adventures before it. Kell has to return to the frozen far north with his gathered and varied companions, and face beasts and terrifying creatures of ice and myth to defeat the Ice Lich – or whatever has taken her place – for the second time.
If there are elements we feel we have seen before, Kell is a superb protagonist. Accepting. Witty. Doggedly determined, once he accepts there is no other way forward. Unafraid to voice the truth, except when it serves the greater good to conceal it. He is the core strength here, and the reader cannot but root for him from the start. Mother Britak, as an occasional POV character, is equally well-written and represents the greater menace outside of Kell’s quest.
This book is the first in Aryan’s Quest for Heroes series, and it is enjoyably hard to predict where the next book with go outside of Kell and Britak’s parts in the wider conflict. The end sets things up nicely for the next (possibly unwanted) stage in our hero’s life, which he will no doubt face in another somewhat disgruntled, resigned and grim manner.