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Peter Newman’s THE VAGRANT is Dark Dystopian Fantasy at Its Very Best

REVIEW SUMMARY: An early contender for Best of 2015.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Baby in hand, the Vagrant must brave the dangers of the blasted lands to deliver a magical sword to the Shining City.

MY REVIEW
PROS: Imaginative setting, compelling characters, storytelling through actions and gestures, beautiful writing, frightening demons, and a powerful message.
CONS: Some readers might not appreciate Newman’s stark writing style.
BOTTOM LINE: The Vagrant is a worthy read announcing a great new fantasy author.

Coming off the high of reading Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings, a silkpunk fantasy masterpiece, I assumed it would be some time before I read a work of fiction of the same caliber. You know what happens when you assume…After reading a series of glowing reviews of The Vagrant by Peter Newman I sent a request to Harper Voyager for a review copy. After reading a couple more extremely positive reviews I got tired of waiting and decided to just go ahead and order a copy. The review copy arrived first but after reading The Vagrant I can confidently say: I regret nothing! I’ll just give one away to a deserving friend — after all this book deserves as wide an audience as possible. I declared The Grace of Kings an early contender for Best of 2015 and The Vagrant serves as stiff competition.

The premise of The Vagrant is simple enough. Accompanied by a baby and a goat, a nameless mute must cross demon-infested wastelands to deliver a magical sword to the Shining City, last bastion of hope. The mute is hunted by multiple factions and it is difficult to distinguish friend from foe in the ruins of a world tainted by evil.

That’s it. It’s simple but sometimes there’s beauty in simplicity and beneath the grit and grime of The Vagrant there is no shortage of beauty. It’s part fantasy and part science fiction. There are demons and knights but the demons enhance their followers with necrotech and the knights ride floating castles and caterpillar tanks. All of the shiny technology of the past has fallen to rust and disuse in the wake of the demonic incursion. The taint of the demons brings mutation and famine. The Vagrant has a sort of The Road meets Mad Max meets Children of Men vibe.

“She points to the fence where it bends low, forming half of a barbed smile. The gap is spanned by a living bridge; guards who could not stem the greed-tide are spitted together, forming a carpet.”

It wouldn’t feel appropriate to classify The Vagrant as grimdark fantasy. The elements of the subgenre are all present: the setting is dystopian, life is harsh and brief, the bad guys are bad and the good guys are few and far between. Newman’s demons and the change they affect on the world and its inhabitants remind me of the forces of Chaos from Warhammer 40,000 — the very property that inspired the term grimdark. The Vagrant is bleak, depressive, and violent and yet…

And yet through a combination of beautiful writing and skillful characterization Newman reveals The Vagrant to be so much more. Newman’s crisp writing and imaginative descriptions beg to be adapted into a graphic novel. And how do you compellingly portray a mute, a baby, and a goat? Carefully and subtly. Voiceless, the actions and interactions of the three characters still manage to speak volumes. The Vagrant’s relationship with the baby, expressed through gestures rather than words, is tender and poignant. The Vagrant’s relationship with the goat is frequently adversarial and comical. Other characters revolve around these three and their dialogue helps sustain the plot and fill in details. Harm and the Hammer that Walks are two further examples of Newman’s excellent characterization, proving that survival isn’t enough.

What really separates The Vagrant from most grimdark fantasy is that might does not (necessarily) make right. In grimdark fiction I’ve read plenty of cynical, disillusioned, morally ambiguous antiheroes that do whatever it takes to succeed. I’ve also read plenty of principled white knights in more traditional fantasy that embrace a higher code. That breed of protagonists doesn’t last long in a grimdark world (i.e. Eddard Stark). From the very start of the novel the Vagrant struggles with right and wrong. Given the burden of magical sword and baby the Vagrant seeks the path of least resistance on the journey north to the Shining City.

“Harm laughs until throats clear by the door, like guns cocking, ready to fire.”

The Vagrant doesn’t engage in questionable pursuits but he doesn’t exactly rush to defend the weak and helpless either. It’s the baby (and later Harm) that perform as the Vagrant’s moral compass, acting as living avatars of his conscience. At first my own world weariness rebelled at the Vagrant allowing an infant to dictate his course of action. As the Vagrant developed, truly earning the designation of hero, my beliefs developed with him and by the end I understood. Survival isn’t enough and at the end of the world kindness can be even more powerful than violence.

The Vagrant’s enemies are numerous. As I mentioned, Newman’s demons are reminiscent Warhammer 40,000’s legions of Chaos and I consider this a big plus. Like most things in the dystopian world of The Vagrant, the demons have titles rather than names: the Usurper, the First, the Demagogue, the Overlord, the Uncivil, the Knights of Jade and Ash. They would each make for great end level Boss Battles were The Vagrant to be made into a video game. These demons sprang forth from the Breach eight years prior to the opening of the book and in the time since they have established a foothold in the material world. These demons have their own flaws and motivations, each warps the world around it in its own image. Our hero’s journey north takes him around and reluctantly through the domains of these demons, bringing to mind Dante’s Inferno as the Vagrant experiences new circles of hell along the way.

The Vagrant surpassed all my expectations and I expect many great things to come from Peter Newman.  Jaded fantasy readers should take this journey — by the end you might find a new perspective.

About Nick Sharps (85 Articles)
Nick is the Social Media Coordinator and Commissioning Editor for Ragnarok Publications and its imprint, Angelic Knight Press. He is a book critic and aspiring author. He is the co-editor of Kaiju Rising: Age of Monsters from Ragnarok Publications. He studies Advertising and Public Relations at Point Park University.

12 Comments on Peter Newman’s THE VAGRANT is Dark Dystopian Fantasy at Its Very Best

  1. silentdante // May 8, 2015 at 1:40 am //

    if anyone goes to amazon to check the book out, please disregard the few 1 star reviews that only reviewed it that way because the publisher had set the price a little high and it caused backlash, a little infair to the author in my opinion.

    • It is very unfair to the author. Peter has no control over the eBook price of his book and anyone that dislikes the price can order it from The Book Depository for $15.

  2. Hmmm, I’m surprised that you enjoyed it that much. I found it juvenile and lackluster to such a degree that I gave up on it before I reached the 200-page mark.

    A major disappointment for me. . .

  3. Is the whole book in present tense? That’s a major hurdle for me.

  4. Simon Ellberger // May 8, 2015 at 2:55 pm //

    Oddly enough, I too read “The Vagrant” right after reading “The Grace of Kings” and thinking Liu’s book a top choice for any book-of-the-year awards. And after finishing “The Vagrant,” I also found it to be a great novel fully deserving of five stars, and “stiff competition for “The Grace of Kings.” It’s a spectacular book; inventive and clever.

    However, you imply it is too good to be called grimdark, as though the term is too limited to encompass such a great novel. I disagree very strongly. In fact, the reasons you give for excluding it from grimdark are, I believe, key reasons why it is in fact grimdark. For instance, “the might makes right” concept is not an inherent part of what grimdark is. As a clear example of this, one need only read “The Broken Empire” series to see where might loses out to the cleverness of its protagonist, Jorg. And most of grimdark has beautiful writing and skillful characterization. See Mark Lawrence again, or Jeff Salyards, Mark Smylie, R. Scott Bakker, Ben Peek, etc.

    So we agree “The Vagrant” is a superb book; but I also think it is supernal grimdark.

    • I certainly didn’t mean to imply it’s “too good” to be grimdark so please do forgive me if that’s how the review came across. I love grimdark. Joe Abercrombie is responsible for reigniting my love of fantasy after years of avoiding the genre, believing it to be nothing but Tolkien knockoffs. I’ve also written very positive reviews of Jeff Salyards’s books — his writing is indeed beautiful. I only meant that in spite of all the darkness in The Vagrant it’s not quite as bleak as some might expect of the grimdark subgenre.

  5. Simon Ellberger // May 8, 2015 at 4:05 pm //

    “I only meant that in spite of all the darkness in The Vagrant it’s not quite as bleak as some might expect of the grimdark subgenre.” Well, then that’s what you should have said. But a comment like “It wouldn’t feel appropriate to classify The Vagrant as grimdark fantasy” says it’s inappropriate to classify it as grimdark, which can easily be interpreted as a knock against grimdark. Following it up with, “And yet through a combination of beautiful writing and skillful characterization Newman reveals The Vagrant to be so much more” reinforces this, and says nothing about readers’ expectations. And “What really separates The Vagrant from most grimdark fantasy is that might does not (necessarily) make right” is just wrong. Most of grimdark demonstrates the opposite (it’s not only Jorg), including Abercrombie’s stories, which you cite. San dan Glokta, for instance, does not succeed through “might makes right.” Then you say, “In grimdark fiction I’ve read plenty of cynical, disillusioned, morally ambiguous antiheroes that do whatever it takes to succeed.” But you’ll meet many who are so human and flawed, that they DON’T do what it takes to succeed; they, to use a platitude, may even shoot themselves in the foot or someone else in the privy—e.g., Tyrion Lannister. Tyrion is the perfect antihero, though far from the only one, who seems to do whatever it takes NOT to succeed, even to the point of being snarky when he should be tactful.

    So yeah, your review did appear to denigrate grimdark by making it seem a lower form of fantasy.

    But I do forgive you.

    • Wow! That’s certainly more in depth than any review I’ve ever written. I’ll send you my notes next time and you can write the critique for me 🙂

      And apologies to any grimdark authors that read this review and believe me to be spitting on the subgenre. I assure you I have grimdark cred — I have a Warhammer 40k tattoo!

  6. SImon Elleberger why would be so aggressive and combative? You are reading into things and making assumptions based on your own biases. There is more than one way to interpret a story, so instead of trying to force your own interpretation on other people, perhaps you should attempt some actual reading comprehension and try a genuine exploration of Nick’s perspective.

  7. Simon Ellberger // May 8, 2015 at 9:35 pm //

    Ryan: Why not take your own advice in your reading of what I wrote? Calling my comments “aggressive and combative” is pure interpretation, and mind-reading on your part. I was being assertive, but there was no intent on my part to be combative. You said, “You are reading into things and making assumptions based on your own biases.” You do not make clear what things I was reading into or what assumptions I made, so that is a vacuous assertion for which I can make no rational reply. Of course I see the world through my own cognitive biases; we all do. It’s called perception. There is nothing wrong with that; it’s impossible to be human or to think like a human without creating mental models with which to frame the world and perceive through and judge by. The important thing is to be aware of this, and I am. If you were equally aware of this, you would know that when someone such as you already dislikes what someone like me is saying, then their confirmation bias will distort my words to fit their worldview of me (as you are doing).

    You also said, “…so instead of trying to force your own interpretation on other people, perhaps you should attempt some actual reading comprehension and try a genuine exploration of Nick’s perspective.” I am not attempting to force any interpretation on anyone. I directly quoted Nick, and expressed MY interpretation of what he said. I didn’t ask anyone else to accept it. How that in any way can be called “forcing” is beyond my mortal understanding. You are making an ad hominem attack without any basis when you tell me I “should attempt some actual reading comprehension” (especially when YOU have comprehended what I wrote as “forcing”). I am not going to try to prove to you that I have excellent reading comprehension, but anyone who actually knows me would find your disparagement of my reading comprehension to be truly humorous. Really, what basis do you have by which to judge my reading comprehension anyway, except your disagreement with and reaction to my relatively brief post, and your confirmation bias once again reacting to distort your comprehension of my comprehension to squeeze it into your preconceived notions? And I did try a genuine exploration of Nick’s perspective; just because I view it differently than you doesn’t mean I didn’t attempt it. Again (please read this carefully), I explained my rationale through direct quotes. Now just what rational, concrete evidence do you have that I did not attempt to explore his perspective? In fact, part of my posting here was to further explore that perspective.

    I think Nick is mature enough to defend himself without your needing to and thus not adding anything meaningful to the comments other than to verbally abuse me without genuinely exploring my perspective while claiming to be against verbally abusing people without exploring their perspective. People who poke their noses into other people’s disagreements are patronizing and likely to get their noses poked back. And I won’t even mention that you got my name wrong. (See what linguistic chicanery like yours can do?).

    And Nick, I am cool with what you said.

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