If I am being honest, the first thing that appealed to me about The Coward by Stephen Aryan is its stunning cover. That slick midnight blue with the gold trim makes this book stand out on the bookshelf. Luckily, The Coward is more than just a pretty face and has a personality to back up its gorgeous exterior. As a quest fantasy about a journey to slay a lich, The Coward builds on popular tropes from across the fantasy genre. At the same time, Aryan injects enough originality and refreshing elements to make the book feel like a nice blend of old and new.
Our protagonist and central POV is Kell Kressia, the only surviving hero from a famous expedition to kill a lich. When Kell was a young boy, there was a terrible undead menace in the northern hinterlands. A group of beloved heroes set out to deal with the abomination and Kell, tired of being a no-name farmer, shadowed them on their way north until it was too late to send him home. Once a part of the official party, his quest led him on a journey to discover something he never expected – buttloads of trauma. The party managed to kill the lich, but not before every single person other than Kell was horrifically killed. Kell returns home with a ton of PTSD, is regaled as a hero, and quietly slinks off to take up the farm life he previously disparaged. Now, several years later, the world is growing cold again and many believe the lich has returned. The kingdom calls on Kell again to brave the north and stop the threat a second time. What will he do?
The back blurb of The Coward feels like it doesn’t do a good job representing the story. It makes it seem like Kell is a fraud who never actually went north and who is hiding that he is a fake, when it is really more about the mental toll that heroic deeds have on ordinary people. Kell is a great protagonist and there is some powerful exploration of trauma throughout the book. This is paired with a diverse cast of colorful party members who end up accompanying Kell on his second round against the lich. Their funny exteriors each hide deep scars and Aryan treats the reader to a carnival ride of coping mechanisms for dealing with loss.
I found I greatly enjoyed my time with all of the characters, except for the young boy who follows Kell’s party north, mirroring Kell’s original mistake. This character is insufferable and feels like they were only there to add a mirror that Kell can gaze into to reflect on how much he has changed. The boy lacks the smooth incorporation that the rest of the cast has to the party and I don’t think he added a lot. The plot is a little too tried and true for my taste, but there are some nice deviations from the classic hero’s journey. The worldbuilding is very solid and I enjoyed the new fantasy races that Aryan made in his world.
Overall, The Coward is a solid entry into the hero’s journey genre. With its discussion around trauma and personal growth, it has something of substance to say and uses its interesting party of characters as a very effective mouthpiece. With a little bit better pacing and a more immersive plot, The Coward would have topped my lists this year – but it still has a strong showing and earns a solid recommendation.
Rating: The Coward – 7.0/10