Peter Newman’s debut novel, The Vagrant, may appear at first glance to be your typical fantasy quest with a flashy cover. And it is a quest, to deliver a magical sword to the ones capable of purging the world from the evil that now corrupts it. And the cover is a thing of beauty. But there are layers upon layers of material to dissect in this reading that stand out so feverishly from its closest fantasy counterparts. That is to say, as far as I’m aware, this is the first book of its kind. And it was an overwhelming pleasure to read.
Where to begin? The book takes place in a world corrupted to its very core. An infernal scourge was awakened seven years ago, defeating one of the Seven, and have driven the forces of cleanliness and good to the far north. The blade of Gamma, the defeated of the Seven, is being sought after by the forces of evil. It’s the Vagrant’s objective to bring the sword to the rest of the Seven. But he has to trudge through lands filled with taint and vile, humans without any moral codes, and animals twisted and mutated into becoming monsters.
Also, it must be noted that the Vagrant carries with him an infant wrapped under his cloak at all times.
One of the books greatest achievements is its ability to build such a strong relationship between characters that literally don’t ever communicate. An entire novel goes by without the Vagrant speaking a single word. Nor do we visit his thoughts. All we have to go by are his unflinching moral standards, and his reactions to certain situations. Newman does such an excellent job here. We learn he’s not good around blood. He trusts people way more than he should. And he’s an extremely kind soul.
Along the way he picks up a goat, whom he can use to produce milk for the baby. The goat itself becomes one of the novels strongest personalities. It’s a spiteful thing, often doing whatever it wishes, and helping out in the most random of moments. You’ll get some really great laughs out of this one.
The growth of the baby is another of the novel’s most fascinating narratives. Throughout all the crazy events that Peter Newman throws the readers in, he finds time to give Vesper, the baby, one of the most heartwarming character arcs I’ve ever read. She learns to talk, to love, and to live – a feat I wasn’t expecting this book to try and accomplish. But it worked, and it was beautiful. If you have the chance, I encourage you to listen to Jot Davies audiobook recording to hear how he voices her. Fantastic.
There are points where the novel brings me close to tears. The writing is minimalist in the sense that it doesn’t tell you any more than what you need to know at any point in time. Poetic even. But the novel is also very dark. At the beginning of the novel I came to realize there isn’t really a light at the end of the tunnel. We were essentially, by reading the Vagrant’s adventures, following the light as it traversed the proverbial tunnel. And that was super cool.
But the novel isn’t perfect. Whenever the novel attempted to get into the mindset of the infernal plagues, it somewhat lost me. I couldn’t always follow the mindset of the beings, let alone what they wanted, aside from rulership over the world. In the end, it’s not wholly important to the plot either way it seems. It felt more like padding than anything.
The ending too seemed just a tad rushed. I wish they’d have explained just a bit better what was going on in the climax of the novel. It jumps to different perspectives just as something important is happening, and they don’t fully explain what actually happened. Or why. But that’s a drawback to having a protagonist who doesn’t speak, I guess.
The novel is written to be very much a fantasy epic. But it also incorporates heavy science fiction elements at times. Guns exist, as do lasers, although most characters still use/prefer swords or typical weapons. Think Borderlands with less guns. But implantation and augmentation are extremely popular procedures in this universe. Not so far as plastic surgery for aesthetic results, but for physical superiority and advantage over others. To become greater than human. But how much before one loses their humanity? This is one of the novel’s most striking arguments to me, as its characters don’t always view it as such a bad thing. But when the consequences of such enhancements go awry, it can be very freaky.
The novel doesn’t feature excessive violence where you’d think there would be. Instead, any real violence is motivated by pity towards characters who are seemingly ‘put down’. The language too is very mild for a book as dark as this one is. It does delve into the supernatural, a genre I generally don’t touch as I’m not a fan, but this took a far more fantastical approach. Beware though, although I wouldn’t call this grimdark, there is a lot in here that is unsuitable for younger readers, including human trafficking, drug abuse, cannibalism and generally the worst humanity has to offer.
That said, Peter Newman delivers an excellent debut, showcasing the worst parts of his world, as well as the very best. This is the first book in a series, as he mentioned to me the other day, and it looks like it might be one of my new favorites. This will certainly be mentioned in some capacity in my ‘best of 2015’ post, although that won’t arrive until much later in the year.