The Pariah is the first book in Anthony Ryan’s latest series, The Covenant of Steel. Ryan is a pretty beloved author in the fantasy genre at this point, with multiple large epics under his belt. We have reviewed a number of his books already: The Waking Fire, Queen of Fire, The Pilgrimage of Swords, and The Wolf’s Call. Generally, our reviews have always come away positive, though there is always room for improvement. The Pariah continues Ryan’s tradition of solid prose, interesting characters, exciting action, and a rich and complete world. However, the pacing suffers from some minor lack of direction and uneven delivery.
The plot of The Pariah is all about Alwyn, as the book reads very much like his personal journal. Told entirely in the first person, and only from Alwyn’s perspective, The Pariah catalogs his life as he bounces around Ryan’s newest world falling from frying pan to fire repeatedly. Alwyn starts as a rogue in a group of bandits that hide in the forest and rob passersby, Robin Hood style. When that explodes, he finds himself a slave in a mine with a bunch of born-again zealots. Next, he falls into the army and sees himself thrown into a war in which he has no stakes. The plot is chaotic, directionless, and feels like it is rushing downstream through rapids. It eventually coagulates into a revenge story, with Alwyn starting on a mission to get even with individuals who wrong him in the first quarter of the story.
As the entire book is focused on Alwyn, his growth and development are the cornerstones of what The Pariah brings to the table. The book is told in the past tense, and the retrospective nature is fun. Alwyn is more charismatic than most previous Ryan protagonists, with a penchant for witty banter and cunning. His “power,” or rather his defining strength, is his keen ability to observe – which I enjoy a lot. Alywn feels the most human out of Ryan’s various protagonists, and Alwyn’s reliance on his observational skills present him with interesting challenges that he must think his way out of by being clever. That isn’t to say he is bad in a fight. Alwyn likes to get up close and personal with short knives, a form of combat that Ryan is quite good at making imaginative and exciting.
Alwyn is not the only character in the book, but he is the only one we really dig into. Despite this, there are a number of diverse side characters that he picks up along the way on his quest. Toria is a foul-mouthed thief and opportunist but is loyal in her own way. Brewer is an unhinged berserker that moves like a boulder rolling down a hill. These two compliment Alwyn’s cunning nature and give Alwyn a variety of levers to move the story forward. There are a number of additional characters, but they mostly exist to move the story along or represent goals or barriers that Alwyn must work towards or around.
The struggle I have with The Pariah is that it feels almost too focused on Alwyn, to the point where only a month after reading it I struggled to remember the plot of the book. What stuck in my mind was my impression of Alwyn and his growth, but the rest of the book can sometimes feel like shallow window dressing to the lead. I wish the story was a little more directed and a little less chaotic. Previous Ryan books have always had moments where everything comes together and forms a central channel that ties all the plot points together. The Pariah lacks this moment (though maybe it is coming in the sequel), and it feels a little weaker for it.
Although its plot is a little undirected, The Pariah was a very entertaining read from an extremely reliable author. The character study of Alwyn is very satisfying and I greatly enjoyed watching him learn to seize destiny by the shoulders and push it in the direction he wanted it to go. The Pariah is not a very self-contained book and very much feels like the opening barrage in a larger series. I am greatly looking forward to the next installment and to see where Alwyn goes next.
Rating: The Pariah – 8.0/10