In many fantasy novels, the hero is just that: a brave and noble hero who will eventually save the day. But in Stephen Aryan’s new fantasy novel The Coward (paperback, Kindle, audiobook), the hero is no hero…people just think he is. In the following email interview, Aryan explains what inspired and influenced this different approach to a familiar path.
To start, what is The Coward about, and what kind of world does it take place in?
The story is about Kell Kressia. Aged seventeen, he tagged along on a quest with the most famous heroes in the Five Kingdoms, seeking fame and glory. They all went to the Frozen North to slay the Ice Lich that was freezing the world to death, and although they succeeded, all of the heroes died in the process and only Kell came home.
The book starts ten years after that. Stories of what happened are told in every tavern, but Kell lives a quiet life as a farmer, tormented by the past, living in the shadow of his famous quest. Everywhere he goes people knows who he is and what he did, or at least they think they do. They all want to hear the story but they don’t know the whole truth and what the adventure cost him.
Where did you get the idea for The Coward?
The idea came from lots of places. For decades I’ve read and enjoyed fantasy novels about heroes, but not many of them look at what happens when they get home. Is it always that they live happily ever after? Or do they immediately go out on another adventure? Are they driven to seek out monsters and danger? Or was it just something they needed to do at the time and now they can rest and in in peace? These are the sorts of questions that kept me awake.
The idea also came from the news. I grew up in an era where soldiers were coming home from the Gulf War and then the Iraq War. Talk of shell shock was replaced with a new acronym: PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. I read books on the subject, watched TV shows that features former soldiers and even read comics as well. All of that swirled around in my brain for many years and eventually The Coward popped out.
In deciding what kind of legend there would be about Kell Kressia, did you base it on any real-life heroes or ones from fiction, or did you just make it up?
Kell is not based on a real individual. He’s an amalgam of many elements of different characters and real people. So some of his symptoms and coping mechanisms are based on techniques used by real soldiers, and other people, who have spent time on the front line. Because it’s not just soldiers who suffer from PTSD and have witnessed atrocities. Reporters, doctors, nurses and many other suffer.
The Coward is a sword & sorcery fantasy novel. But the title makes me think it might also be funny. Is it?
The Coward is not a comedic novel or jokey. It’s a lot more serious in tone, but it’s not grimdark. There is humor in the novel, but it tends to be black comedy, to balance some of the more disturbing moments in the story. I have a dark and dry sense of humor so it reflects me to some degree but also fits with the circumstances.
So, aside from the news, what else do you consider to be the big influences on The Coward?
Pinpointing specific influences is usually quite tricky, but in this case, I made a list.
Around the time I was working on a first draft of this novel The Punisher was debuting on Netflix. It is very much the story of man broken by tragedy, but also changed by what he saw while he was at war, because he came home a different person. So in that regard Frank Castle and Kell Kressia have something in common. They were both changed by their experiences in ways they couldn’t predict.
Which brings me to my next question: You are a big comic book guy. Do you think The Coward was influenced by any specific comics or graphic novels?
Aside from The Punisher comics over the years, another more recent comic book influence is Motor Girl by Terry Moore. It is about a decorated war veteran called Samantha, who runs a junkyard, and encounters something weird in the desert. As well as an adventure story in the present, the book is also about her coming to terms with what happened in the past and how it has shaped her
Did you ever consider writing The Coward as a comic book or graphic novel?
No, I never considered it. I developed as a novel and early in the process of any project I know which medium I’m writing it for.
Now, you have already said that The Coward is the first book of a duology called The Quest For Heroes. What was it about this story that made you think it needed to be told in two books as opposed to three or four or thirty-seven? Or, for that matter, one really long one?
Originally it was three books, because that’s the standard. That’s what I thought it needed to be. However, on talking through the idea for the series at a macro level with my agent, I realized it wasn’t a trilogy at all. I didn’t have a clear idea for book 3 at all, just a vague notion that wasn’t very well developed or particularly interesting. So it became two really solid books.
The second book is very different to the first in lots of ways, so it was never going to be one long book.
Do you know yet what the other book will be called and when it will be out?
The second book in the duology is called The Warrior. The first draft has been written and it is with my publisher, Angry Robot Books, for edits. It will be published in June 2022.
Having written two trilogies, you undoubtedly know that there are people who are going to wait until the second book comes out before they read The Coward, and some will then read them back-to-back. But is there any reason why you think people shouldn’t wait?
From a story perspective The Coward is a complete story with a very distinct beginning, middle, and end. The sequel is another adventure that is very different in tone and style. So if the books were read back to back they would feel like an odd couple, not two halves of one larger story.
Hollywood has a thing for fantasy tales these days. Do you think The Coward could work as a movie, TV show, or even a game?
I think The Coward could work as a movie, but like many books the screenwriter would need to trim stuff out to get it down to a reasonable run time. Sometimes when that happens the heart of the piece can be missing. Two movies, like Denis Villeneuve is doing for Dune, would work. However, my preferred format for development would be a limited series on TV. Say 8-10 hours on Netflix or another streaming service.
And if that was going to happen, who would you want them to cast as Kell and the other main characters, and why them?
I would want whoever is in charge to cast someone fairly unknown in all of the roles, otherwise viewers can sometimes bring baggage with them with leads to peculiar expectations. Plus, it can also be a bit distracting. If they are all fresh-faced actors or relatively unknown then you can just sit back and enjoy the story without spending time on IMDB trying to work out where you know them from. If you think back to the heady days when Lost first started on TV, before it went downhill, barring about 3 actors, all of them were fairly new and we loved the characters for who they were. Now when people see Evangeline Lilly, in the back of their mind they’re probably thinking, oh it’s Kate from Lost or The Hobbit or The Wasp from the Marvel movies.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Coward, which of your trilogies would you suggest they read next and why that one and not the other one?
My first two trilogies are connected, and the second trilogy takes place ten years after the first. So really, they need to go back to the beginning and start with Battlemage, which kicks off The Age Of Darkness trilogy [and also includes Bloodmage and Chaosmage]. Then move on to the sequel, The Age Of Dread trilogy [Mageborn, Magefall, Magebane]. Characters from the first trilogy appear in the second, so if you start halfway through you’ll miss out on a lot.