The Coward follows Kell, a not-really-a-hero, as his past catches up with him. Ten years ago, Kell tagged along with a group of legendary heroes as they traveled to defeat an evil Lich. Despite not being seen as a hero himself, Kell alone returned. Since then, he has lived a quiet life, avoiding the songs and stories that have grown up around his “great deeds”…until he is forced to confront a truth he’s hidden from everyone; he is a coward.
If you haven’t read the book blurb, don’t. It makes the book sound like a humorous tale and, while I loved the book, it is most definitely not comedic fantasy. Instead, it is a deep and nuanced examination of human nature, that just happens to have fantasy elements added.
As Kell travels north to confront whatever has taken up residence in the original lair of the Ice Lich, he goes as a man condemned. He knows that it is only through a vast amount of luck that he survived the first time and that he won’t survive a second. There is a switch from the moment he intends to run and the moment he realizes that he’ll never be free from what happened ten years ago. His decision to confront the unknown evil reflects his decision to confront the horrible memories that he’s tried hard to push down. His character has one of- if not the- most realistic and respectful depictions of PTSD I’ve seen in a fantasy novel. I felt for him, and was fascinated by him in equal measure.
He was joined by a varied cast of characters, some of which I definitely liked more than others, but all of which added something unique and special to the plot. There were two characters in particular that really stood out to me: Willow and Gerren.
Willow was not human and was often viewed with a sense of distrust or even open dislike. What I loved about Willow, though, is that she would lay down her life for another without hesitation, despite knowing that most wouldn’t do the same for her. The way she saw things was different and very thought-provoking.
Gerren was basically the person Kell was ten years ago, before Kell was broken by what he experienced. Gerren was idealistic, naïve, and had found himself sucked in by visions of glory, completely ignoring the truth when Kell tried to tell him. His story arc and his development from moonstruck youth to a more mature adult was wonderfully written and incredibly interesting.
These characters grown and evolve against a brilliantly created and executed fantasy backdrop, traveling toward an inevitability that will test them physically, but also emotionally. The final bit of the book had me on the edge of my seat.
Author Stephen Aryan crafted an incredible book in The Coward, one that provides an excellent view both of what the fantasy genre can be, and the complicated yet beautiful morass of life.
Read this one.