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