Book review: The Warrior (Quest for Heroes #2) by Stephen Aryan

(courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

Preview copy provided by Angry Robot Books via NetGalley – The Warrior releases 23 August.

There is an enthralling expansiveness to beautifully and richly told fantasy novels, a sense of imaginative foreverness that envelops you so completely you forget that there’s a real world waiting out there to rudely break the spell of enchantment when the novel is lamentably done.

To be subsumed that completely is a rare gift but it is one that The Warrior by Stephen Aryan (The Coward), the second book in the Quest for Heroes series, gives in luxuriant quantities, its rich storytelling the product of an engrossing narrative, vibrantly-realised characters and an understanding of the complex way in which humanity often intersects with the world around it.

A thoughtful and empathetically alive novel, The Warrior is, first and foremost, a fantastically pell-mell story of action and adventure that takes us to a land almost wholly lost to a malevolent, reality-twisting poison and to another where darkness assumes an altogether lighter but no less destructively religious form.

In both instances, the key characters of the novel, a husband and wife who find themselves fighting the same battle against markedly different foes, have to make their way through challenges unimaginable, bigotry and prejudice dressed up as reasoned thought (when it’s clearly nothing of the sort) and a sense of destiny unravelled and changed beyond all recognition.

The Warrior picks up the story of Kell Kressia, the saga-lauded, twice-validated hero of the Five Kingdoms, who, following the heroic adventures of The Coward, which saw a close-knit small troop takes on monstrous evil, now sits, quite reluctantly, on the throne of Algany, married to the old king’s daughter who, through a blighted misogynistic twist, cannot occupy the peak position of power herself.

“‘Sometimes it’s necessary [to use force]. Polite requests often fall on deaf ears, but we all remember the first time we were smacked for misbehaving. A lot of people grow old, they don’t grow up.’

‘Not everyone is like that,’ argued Sigrid.

‘You’re right, but enough people are, and that makes a difference to those with less. Time is running out for me, but I will live long enough to see the start of a new age in the Five Kingdoms.’

‘What have you done?’ said Sigrid.'”

Theirs is a loveless marriage, though it is not without some lingering affection, and they spend much of their time apart, Kell sharpening his sword fighting skills with the enigmatic warrior Odd, a member of The Ravens who guard the king and queen with their lives if need be, and Sigrid attending with intelligence, insight and compassion to the endless affairs of state.

While Algany is a peaceful and enlightened place, the rest of the Five Kingdoms are not so lucky, with the prime religion of the land centred on a being called The Shepherd and led by the poisonously extremist Reverend Mother Britak who speaks sweet words with a darkly sour aftertaste, seeking to rule over everyone in a theocratic rush to the authoritarian edge.

It’s a battle between religious superstition and fundamentalist warmongering which would give The Handmaid’s Tale a run for its money on one hand, and enlightened forward-thinking rule on the other, a squaring up of backwardness and thoughtful humanity that very much resembles the divisions in our world today.

As this critical junction of events, Willow, an old friend of Kell’s from The Coward, turns up, with tales of a homeland so ruined by a spreading black nightmare called the Malice that the only hope is a risky mission deep into the heart of her now-bleak and desolate land in the hope they can deal one final blow against the poison that is corrupting and terrorising her people and which threatens to wipe their civilisation from the map (though one that does not, rather magically, match Kell’s own).

Stephen Aryan (image courtesy Hachette Australia)

Kell doesn’t hesitate to volunteer to go with her, taking Odd and another Raven, Yarra, with him, both of whom have deep troubles and secrets of their own, leaving behind Sigrid, with whom he has brokered a last-minute rapprochement of sorts, to battle the conniving nastiness of Reverend Mother Britak whose blindly devoted followers are practising a peculiarly intolerant kind of cruelty across the land.

Both battles are titanic in their own way and The Warrior moves seamlessly between them, never once putting a foot wrong, with the two seemingly divergent storylines linked by shared themes of bigotry, hatred, ferocious darkness and the need for good, in whatever form it takes, to ceaselessly take on evil lest the world end at the hands of those who do nothing.

It’s a masterful piece of writing and obviates that tendency that can creep into spilt narratives where one is for more compelling than the other simply because it feels more relevant or important or the characters are simply more exciting to be around.

Impressively, the stakes are equally high in both circumstances and there’s never a point in either stream where you’re desperate to read ahead so you can get to “the good stuff”; it’s all good, very, very good, in fact, and having the two halves sit equally, enthrallingly, together makes for a seamlessly involving read that underscores yet again how intertwined these two utterly different circumstances are.

“The gap-toothed missionary leered at Sigrid, so she smashed the pommel of her sword into his face, breaking his nose. It did little to improve his looks, but the splash of blood made a pretty pattern across his white robe. As he started to snarl, she side-stepped a clumsy attack and thrust the point of her sword into his stomach.”

The brilliance of The Warrior rests in its flawless ability to be expansively action-oriented, with battles cropping up quite often in the massive fight between good and evil that characterises the novel as a whole, and also intimately intense as both Kell and Sigrid, and many of the supporting characters such as Willow, Odd and Yarra, have to confront some substantial inner issues, all of which carry a reckoning of some sort.

Neither element cancels out the other and so, what we end up with is a fantasy novel that goes for the big imaginative narrative and thematic leaps while remembering that sheer, raw, vulnerable humanity is at the heart of every story, no matter how epic and that the more intimate, emotionally evocative moments must walk in lockstep with the bigger, bolder scenes.

As with the superlative The Coward, which was muscular in its storytelling and humanly up close with its more emotional elements, even when the characters may not have been all that human, The Warrior is a powerfully affecting story that sweeps you in its grasp, taking you on a journey to the very furthest extent of your imagination where everything is on the line, and into the very depths of what it means to be a living, breathing, feeling being, balancing action, intrigue and mystically grounded and searingly brutal twists and turns with rich emotionality to deliver the kind of novel that is not soon forgotten and whose characters and their actions stay vibrantly alive in your memory well after the last page has been reluctantly turned.

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