The Vagrant is his name. He has no other. Friendless and alone he walks across a desolate, war-torn landscape, carrying nothing but a kit-bag, a legendary sword and a baby. His purpose is to reach the Shining City, last bastion of the human race, and deliver the sword, the only weapon that may make a difference in the ongoing war. But the Shining City is far away and the world is a very dangerous place.
Peter Newman’s debut novel The Vagrant was one of my most anticipated books for the first half of the year. Already familiar with his work on the Tea and Jeopardy podcast, I was looking forward to seeing what he would do with a longer fictional work. When the cover was released and I spotted that baby on it, along with the blurb, I was hooked, I had to read this book. After a bit of a cold start The Vagrant made for very compelling reading.
I’m not sure whether the cold start was due to the shift between my previous read (Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor) and The Vagrant, since they had radically different tones and styles, or whether there was something inherent to Newman’s writing I just had to adjust to. Newman’s writing is interesting. My first instinct was to call it lyrical grim, as the setting is a war-torn, post-apocalyptic, and ruined landscape and the tone is grim, but the prose can be quite lyrical in places, even when describing dark things indeed. Newman also does something interesting with the naming of his characters. The main character and many others are only known by a sobriquet or a title, which initially put them at something of a remove and in some cases kept them that way. It’s made me conscious of how important proper names are in human interaction and how much harder you have to work to humanise a title instead of a name. Newman’s use of flashbacks to explain how the characters got to where they are and how the Vagrant got to be walking around with a baby was well-executed, though there is still plenty of background left to reveal, especially as it concerns the happenings in the Shining City during the previous eight years.
The world-building was interesting too, though I had a hard time visualising distances and relative locations; I guess being spatially challenged, maps are my friends. The Vagrant’s world is post-apocalyptic secondary world setting, which I hadn’t encountered in this way before. Usually fantasy books that seem to have such a setting, turn out to be a far, far future Earth. Not so here. I liked the fact that the demonic invaders are incorporeal and thus have to possess people or at least their corpses to be embodied, which was rather creepy, especially as some of them don’t actually possess a corpse, they just use them to build their own corporeal form to contain their demonic essence. The taint the demons spread is interesting in its manifestation, as it seemed to be as much spiritual as physical. It also made the purging described later in the book interesting, if horrifying, as I wondered how much would be left of a person if they just cut everything that is tainted out. What if it takes something essential spiritually, without impeding physical survival? What would that do to a survivor? Hopefully we’ll learn more about this in the sequel.
Of course an interesting setting demands interesting characters and Newman hands us those in spades. First of all there is the titular Vagrant. A mysterious figure to start out with, he remains somewhat so throughout the novel, even if we learn more and more about his past as the story goes on. One of the things that remains unexplained is the fact that the Vagrant is mute. He isn’t incapable of speech as we do have evidence of him singing, but he can’t speak. Yet for all that he is able to express himself eloquently anyway. There is a sense of relentlessness in the Vagrant’s progress to the Shining City and I loved his power of endurance. He is also a good person, sometimes despite himself, stopping to help even if he knows the smart thing to do would be to move on and let it go. His is a pure spirit.
The Vagrant doesn’t travel alone. From the first he is accompanied by a baby, who initially is only referred to as it and the baby, but who eventually grows into a personality and name of her own. I really liked how Newman incorporated the realities of caring for a small child into the narrative. Seriously, there is nappy changing in this book, people. I also liked how Newman developed the baby’s character. It starts showing in little ways, how she’ll notify the Vagrant of her desires, how she plays and interacts with him – the eyebrow-waggling game is the most adorable thing ever – and increasingly becomes clearer when she starts crawling, then walking and talking. To feed the baby the Vagrant acquires a goat, which brings with it a whole new set of problems. Because this goat? This goat has all of the stubbornness available to her species and then some. She is one of my favourite things in this novel and often brings a humorous note to the narrative without descending into Disney Animal Sidekick territory.
However grim the world is, and even if the Vagrant and his companions encounter a lot of grief and suffering, there is also a lot to the narrative to generate hope. This is clearest in the arc of the Vagrant’s third travelling companion Harm. When we first encounter him he is hired muscle, a part of the rebel group in Verdigris, and a man set to violence. Yet inexplicably, he attaches himself to the Vagrant, finds new sides to himself and becomes a second parent to the baby. His is an arc of redemption. I loved his friendship with the Vagrant, where both of them have to consciously make the decision to trust each other and to believe that the other is well-intentioned towards them. During the course of the novel the friendship becomes deeper and more ingrained almost. And if there was ever a fanfic waiting to happen, it is one exploring the depths of this relationship further.
The other example of the power of compassion is the Hammer’s arc. One of the first humans to be thoroughly tainted by the Usurper, she is known as the Usurper’s daughter. She’s seen as a total monster and when she is sent to hunt the Vagrant and the Malice, as the sword he carried is called by the demons, it seems as if she’ll be just another demon to be despatched. Yet Newman turns that expectation completely on its ear by having the Vagrant and Harm befriend her and returning some of her humanity to her. It was such a powerful arc and its conclusion was perfect, even if it broke my heart.
The Vagrant is a fabulous debut for Peter Newman, one that surprised me with its voice and its setting, even if it took me a little to get used to it. Newman writes a dark and grim tale, but infuses it with surprisingly light notes in the form of humour and wonderful characterisation. The Vagrant caters to both those whose like grim and gritty narratives and those who like their books to leave them with hope. That’s a fine line to tread and Newman does it with aplomb.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.