Monday, June 07, 2021

The Coward by Stephen Aryan: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

The Coward by Stephen Aryan

I picked up The Coward by Stephen Aryan thinking it was a comedic account of a man who has faked his way into herodom and now has to face the consequences of his cowardice, when the threat he hadn’t actually dealt with returns. I don’t know why the description gave me that notion. The book turned out to be a run-of-the mill epic fantasy that starts a Quest for Heroes trilogy. I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Kell is a farmer with a heroic past. He’s the sole survivor of a quest of heroes to kill a creature that has caused the weather to turn cold. His quiet life is interrupted when the weather worsens again, and the king sends him back to the creature’s lair to see if it’s come back. He gathers a group of people, heads to north and does exactly as commanded, heroically saving the day again. The end. There are no cowards, just a few moments of weakness that only make the characters more human.

Despite the baffling name, this is a competent fantasy starter. Narrative flows well, the characters are interesting, and there’s plenty of action. There are several point of view characters in addition to Kell, like Gerret, a young boy joining the quest. He hopes to become a hero too, only to learn that it’s a perilous job. Other members of their small group get an occasional chance to narrate the story too.

The most important side character is the Head Priestess of the Shepherd, the zealot leader of the dominant religion. She’s an old woman fighting to spread the faith at any cost and to prevent age from getting the better of her. She was a creepy character, but her chapters suffered from a lack of a coherent arc. They mostly set the plot for future books, but in the context of this one, they remained a bit pointless. A holy war isn’t original enough an idea to keep my interest either.

While this was a good book, it was much too long. It’s as if authors think that fantasy needs to be epic in length, whereas it should be epic in content. This wasn’t. A large portion of the book was spent on a journey, with the group fighting a monstrous creature after another. Obstacles make a good story, but the scenes were repeating themselves after a while, turning the heroes into mindless butchers. The characters were prone to introspection too, and while it gave them depth, none of it led anywhere, which added to the sense of needless length.

The book ended with a series of out of the blue revelations that hadn’t even been hinted at. I couldn’t help thinking that instead of wasting pages in pointless butchering, the author should’ve used the space in foreshadowing them better. The ending promises interesting times for Kell in subsequent books, but I think the book works as a stand-alone just fine.

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