The Coward by Stephen Aryan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Coward takes a look behind the heroes in their tales and sagas to reveal who the real people behind the songs and daring deeds are. Written primarily from the point of view of main character, Kell Kressia, The Coward sees a damaged man thrust back into the world of heroism he had been hiding from for the last ten years. Once, he desperately wanted to be a hero and tagged along on a quest with eleven (11) men to defeat an Ice Lich in the Frozen North that threatened the Five Kingdoms with failing crops, famine and death. Only Kell returned and he is not keen to repeat the ordeal. Now, the weather has turned sour again, crops are failing and the King has summoned Kell to save the world once more.
Kell takes us on his second epic quest as he relives some of the horrors he faced as a teenager. Along the way, he is joined by a rag-tag group of misfits each with their own reasons for following him into the grim Frozen North. What they experience and what they find out in the icy wasteland surprises even the cynical Kell. Meanwhile, the head of the church of the Shepherd, Reverend Mother Britak, is manipulating events in the Five Kingdoms to bring about a holy war to bring all in line under her one true god.
Through Kell’s story, Stephen Aryan examines feelings of fear, courage and obligation, as well as the physical and mental toll heroism takes on the individual. Kell describes symptoms much akin to PTSS and it is a refreshing – albeit dark – take on epic fantasy giving it a touch of realism. We explore the tragedies of death, loss and the grief that goes with it but also friendship, belonging and love. The Coward packs a lot into its pages.
If this sounds heavy, fret not, as the prose is accessible and short chapters will have you sailing through it in no time. This could easily be read as a standalone if you’re worried about waiting for book two (The Warrior) but there’s still enough there to set the stage for a sequel. My only real criticism is that, for a traditionally published book, there were quite a few editing/proofreading misses and mistakes. The overall experience made up for it but nevertheless it did lose some points in my mind over this (I was reading the paperback version, these issues may have been rectified in digital copies or later printings).
Prince of Thorns
by Mark Lawrence
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Note: I’ve kept this one short given the popularity of the series and the length of time it’s been out. It’s hard to provide a no-spoiler review that doesn’t cover what everyone before me has already mentioned.
This was Mark Lawrence’s debut and first in The Broken Empire trilogy where we follow Jorg, a prince to one of a hundred kingdoms all vying to become Emperor and reunite the lands. He’s also a character who has suffered some unimaginable hardship and loss. He has seen terrible things and it broke him as a child so that now, as a young man, he is whip sharp and hardened.
Prince of Thorns is a fast-paced dark science-fantasy (grimdark, specifically) following Jorg and his road brothers as he tries making his first advances to be King. I knew this was going to be a Sci-Fantasy before starting out but if I hadn’t there are plenty of clever little nods to it that Lawrence has worked into the prose before the point where it becomes readily obvious. At times, you can tell this was a debut and the writing could use a touch more polish though this doesn’t impact on the story.
Lawrence has made some interesting choices as to what has survived through the years to reach Jorg’s time. You will recognise names like Plato and Nietzche but nothing more modern; you will likely recognise ‘Jesu’ as a version of Jesus where the ‘s’ has been dropped over time and of all religions it seems Catholicism in particular is what has endured into the era of the Broken Empire. Sadly, it seems nothing like feminism or other concepts of equality have made it through the millenia as succession is still a man’s game and the trappings of patriarchal capitalism remain everywhere. While those do represent some disappointing missed opportunities what does comprise Prince of Thorns remains a satisfying dark fantasy tale that serves as a keen character study.
We Are the Dead by Mike Shackle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
When you think of a rollercoaster it’s fast, frenetic and a little bit scary, which is what you’ll get from We Are the Dead without having to queue for two hours first. WATD is the debut novel from Mike Shackle in his grimdark series The Last War, following its characters through the dark and deadly life in an occupied territory as they try to resist the enemy and take back their country, Jia. The book’s main storyline takes place over a span of eight days, which adds to the fast-paced nature of it, and follows five main points of view: Tinnstra, Jax, Dren, Yas and Darus.
Tinnstra is a young woman consumed by fear and a desperate desire to live but not necessarily the courage to fight for it until she gets caught up in an escape attempt that could give all of Jia hope for a future of freedom. While the blurb on the reverse of the book only specifically mentions Tinnstra, she is not the sole focus of the story; nevertheless her arc presents a refreshingly honest take on violence and war. After all, if you look within yourself, would you really have the courage to fight an unwinnable war knowing it would cause your certain death? Or, would you be petrified and forced to run and hide?
Dren’s story – aside from Tinnstra’s – shows some of the most growth. From a reckless, rebellious teenager, hellbent on killing the enemy no matter the cost, to a young man who can see the bigger picture and the part he has to play in it. The character development across the board is excellent and Dren’s is possibly my favourite.
There is plenty of dark, grim and gritty content here too. Everyone suffers some sort of familial loss, even if in one case it’s a twistedly happy affair. There is death on a mass scale, betrayal, failure, torture and the ever-present looming darkness of fear. This is still a tale of rebellion and resistance despite all the odds going against our Jian friends and a brilliant read that is more than it seems.
Some TW/CW for the book: suicidal ideation, sexual assault, mentions of and attempted r*pe, torture
Of Blood and Fire by Ryan Cahill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Of Blood and Fire from Ryan Cahill is a great debut, marking the start of The Bound and the Broken series, which proved an addictive read. It is a classic epic fantasy with a modern interpretation. Though this starts off in familiar territory – with 3 young men, as close as brothers, on the eve of their manhood trial, which inevitably goes awry and the village bully gets involved – it is very much worth the read.
The central characters are ones you can care about and root for. Calen, Dann & Rist are our three freshly-proven young men who get caught up in a kerfuffle with the big bad Empire after they befriend the mysterious Erik who is travelling incognito with his brother and father. After coming to the aid of their new friends, our main boys are landed in the shit and it gets worse before getting better.
Along their journey these three make discoveries about themselves and the world around them. They witness a baby dragon hatching – the first in over 400 years – they meet elves, giants, dwarves and are chased across the continent by a Fade hellbent on destroying the aforementioned baby dragon.
Without giving too much more away there are stakes, there is loss, there is wonder and awe in this book. At times there are some words used that feel a bit jarring or out of place where a simpler descriptor could have sufficed but I think Cahill shows a lot of promise. Book 2 in the series, Of Darkness and Light, is already out and the third installation is due later this year (Of War and Ruin) so you won’t have to wait long to continue the story. Cahill is also planning to release a novella set in The Bound and the Broken world prior to Book 3’s release to keep eager fans ticking over.
I would recommend reading the prequel novella, The Fall, as it clues you in to some of the language and magic of this world and gives a good sense of the epic proportions the main series is heading for. Did I mention there are dragons?