One by one, the legendary heroes of The Five Realms fell in the Frozen North before the Ice Lich. But not Kell Kressia. Ten years later, the Five Realms need Kell to make the journey once more … except he’s not going.
Kell Kressia, legendary slayer of the Ice Lich of the Frozen North; coward.
Aged 17, Kell Kressia is the sole survivor of an ill-fated expedition to the North in which the renowned heroes of The Five Realms die, one-by-one, on their quest to slay the Ice Lich. After beheading the Ice Lich, saving The Five Realms from an endless winter, Kell returns to great celebration a broken man.
Deeply traumatised, Kell has spent the past ten years tending to his small farm holding and avoiding contact with people as much as possible. Unfortunately for him a quiet retirement isn’t on the cards. The weather is growing unseasonably cold as it had before and once again Kell forced to journey back to the start of it all.
I should start this review by recognising that Stephen Aryan has certainly taken a risk in attempting something fresh within the fantasy genre. From the very first (wonderful!) line, you know this book hits differently.
Kell Kessell represents a climbdown from typical fantasy heroes mowing down hordes of enemies without any long-lasting consequences. After the first battle scene, you truly know this isn’t Kings of the Wyld. I could feel Kell’s loss and cry his tears, and sense the dread whenever he is asked to recite his version of his story by another tavern patron. His PTSD is evident and believably portrayed throughout.
Aryan’s greatest achievement in The Coward is his juxtaposition of the archetypal Kel Kressia Saga’s retelling of Kell’s journey against Kell’s return to the North. Kell is joined by and watches the young Gerren, a carbon copy of himself, learn that the road to heroism is long and damning. When his ploy to disappear with the expedition money is foiled by Gerren, Kell accepts the inevitability of his quest. This time he vows to do things properly.
Despite assembling a ragtag band of comrades and embarking upon a heroic adventure, battles leave characters bloodied and broken. People shy away in fear after the romanticism of Kell’s journey is crushed, so that they themselves are dragged in. The brutal journey also takes its toll on everyone physically and mentally. Not everyone makes it. Ironically, Kell transforms into a true hero. He becomes a leader and a mentor, all to prove to himself that he wasn’t just lucky to be alive.
Although Aryan doesn’t leave every fantasy trope at the door, he still writes in a fresh and enticing voice. The writing sings throughout the book’s prose. The drive and evolution of the characters generates pure just one more page feeling that meant it was hard to put the book down, and why I’ll be ordering the sequel.
Where the book does fall down is in a number of mistakes that have crept in prior to publication. While I expect to find something here and there when reading any book, I found I was being drawn out of my immersion by some missing words too often. Am I a very pernickety reader? Probably. Does this stop the book from being a must-read? No.
Secondly, the sections featuring the book’s fanatically religious antagonist, Britak, changed the pace in a nice way yet I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the end of her story arc in The Coward; after concocting a few schemes to deal with Kell she ultimately steps aside late on in the book and we don’t hear of her again. There’s definitely the book’s follow-up, The Warrior, to come where I am sure Aryan will have plenty in store for us in regard to Britak. Still, Britak’s story here ultimately ends in “I’ll get you next time!” and left me hanging.
Aryan’s character development is masterful. His worldbuilding is expansive and immersive as all fantasy worldbuilding should be. I want to know more about the world and, since I pre-ordered the book, I have a beautiful map to both follow along with the story and to remind me of my journey with Kell and company. Although there were some niggles that could have been ironed out I thoroughly recommend this as a summer must-read.