Gamma’s sword, the Malice, wakes, calling to be taken to battle once more.
But the Vagrant has found a home now, made a life and so he turns his back, ignoring its call.
The sword cries out, frustrated, until another answers.
Her name is Vesper.
The Malice is the sequel to Peter Newman’s 2015 debut The Vagrant, which I absolutely loved. It made me coin the term lyrical grim, a description I still stand by, and it set the bar high for this sequel. A height the book easily clears, as it is a wonderful read, featuring more of Newman’s lovely prose style. The Malice takes the reader forward in time about a decade and presents them with an entirely new set of main characters, relegating the ones from The Vagrant somewhat to the background.
If The Vagrant was the eponymous hero’s story, then The Malice is Vesper’s story. Her adventure is somewhat of a twist on the classic ‘farm kid finds a sword and a destiny’ plot line, as while she definitely finds a sword, she doesn’t just find a destiny, she makes her own in a far more active way than is usual in this trope. In many ways this story is also a mirror to the Vagrant’s journey in the first book. Vesper partially retraces her father’s steps from the Shining City back to the South. She even had a goat companion. Well, technically it was a kid, but still it did all the goaty things. On her journey she visits places familiar to the reader and even meets up with some old acquaintances in Verdigris.
I loved seeing the Vagrant and Harm in their later years and to see how their relationship had developed. In my review for the first book I said that if there was ever a fanfic waiting to happen, it was it was a deeper exploration of the Vagrant and Harm’s relationship and Newman at least obliges in so far as we do get to see them in a committed relationship. (Though I’m still crossing my fingers for a novella set in the decade between the first two books—just think of all the parenting shenanigans and the Goat creating her own kingdom in the shed!) Between them they have raised Vesper to be a remarkably competent and sensible human being. She is such a down-to-earth, common-sense heroine. But she is also still very much a child at the start of the book, complete with impulsive actions many adolescents are prone to.
Much in the way that Vesper herself was a non-speaking character in The Vagrant who was nonetheless a fully formed, complex, and utterly distinct personality, the Malice has her own unique presence. The Malice’s personality and the way Vesper and the sword become a true partnership was well crafted. Vesper, the Malice, and the kid are joined by three more companions. From the start they are accompanied by Duet, who was also a very well-written character. I loved the concept of the Harmonised and the way Duet is affected by the loss of her other half. But Duet isn’t just tragic, she is also a funny character whose exasperation at the kid’s antics and Vesper’s relentless optimism often provide some levity. Later on they are also joined by Samael and Jem, who they meet in infernal territory. Samael was a great opposite view character, giving us a viewpoint from the infernal side of the world and reaffirming that not all that are tainted are evil. In a way, Samael reminded me a lot of the Vagrant in the first book, in the way that he would find himself performing kindnesses almost despite himself. Case in point: freeing Jem. Another case in point: the Dogspawn he names Scout. Newman has a knack for writing these animal companion characters, because Scout is almost just as entertaining as the kid.
Newman has a great way with developing characters and including fascinating abilities or characteristics that turn out to be quite relevant later in the plot. That being said, I was a little baffled by Vesper’s strong attachment to both Genner and Jem in what seems to be a relatively short space of time. However, this can also be because they spend a lot of time travelling and as such actual in-book time was far longer than it came across in the narrative. Still whether it was due to my not catching it or the fact that Vesper is both young and has a strong innate sense of loyalty, I found the strength of her feelings for those two surprising.
Vesper’s development over the course of the book was fantastic and I really liked how she took ownership not just of the sword, but of her destiny and actions as well. Vesper is not afraid to take risks and she makes promises she has to fight to keep or — if the situation calls for it — break. But she never backs down and she never tries to duck her responsibilities. If there was ever a young lady with agency, Vesper is it. The Malice is a marvellous second instalment in this trilogy and I was glad I was able to immediately dive into the next one, The Seven.