The Sunday Section: Book Review - 'The Vagrant'

I bought this back in the summer, so wanted to read it but didn’t succumb because then I would have read it.  I know, doesn’t make sense, but I love savouring things.  Anyway, I finally caved.  And found I could not read it fast enough! 

To be honest, it was the cover that did it for me.  To begin with, it was the image of a hooded man in a tattered coat, holding an obviously beautiful sword in such a nonchalant manner.  It was only when I looked again, did I notice the baby.  That was it – sold!

For more than a thousand years the crack in the ground known as the Breach has been watched.

It was prophesied that the Breach would one day open, spilling terror.  But as the centuries passed and that day did not come mankind lowered its guard.

And so the first invaders to float up from the depths end a sleepy thousand-year watch with screams and blood.

When finally an army arrives at the Breach, the enemy are waiting …

The back cover blurb tells of events that have already happened; the inside flap reveals more …

            ‘ The Vagrant is his name.  He has no other.

Years have passed since humanity’s destruction emerged from the Breach.

            Friendless and alone he walks across a desolate, war-torn landscape.

As each day passed the world tumbles further into depravity, bent and twisted by the new order, corrupted by the Usurper, the enemy, and his infernal horde.

His purpose is to reach the Shining City, last bastion of the human race, and deliver the only weapon that may make a difference in the ongoing war.           

What little hope remains is dying. Abandoned by its leaders, The Seven, and its heroes, the Seraph Knights, the last defences of a once-great civilization are crumbling into dust.

            But the Shining City is far away and the world is a very dangerous place.

This is Peter Newman’s first novel.  The story is told in the present tense, a style I’ve never really cared for, but, in Mr Newman’s hands, it comes across as ‘right’ for this story, and soon I didn’t even notice it.  He has also made the interesting decision of having a non-speaking protagonist.  Yes, the Vagrant does not speak.  At all.  For the duration of the story.  It’s not that he does not have a voice for he can sing; he has simply chosen not to speak.  Newman has done a sterling job in depicting the Vagrant interacting with those around him because it requires a great deal of showing – someone who does not speak cannot ‘tell’.  I was impressed with how easily the Vagrant’s communication flowed, via body language, hand and facial gestures. 

Newman reveals little of the Vagrant’s background, despite the flashback chapters dealing with the emergence of the invaders 8 years previous.  He remains mysterious, and I liked that.  I also liked his almost single-minded determination.  His goal is to get the weapon to the Shining City, and, in this, he does not waver.  Yet he also has integrity and compassion.  And courage.

The world of the Vagrant isn’t the run-of-the-mill apocalyptic world of science fiction, or corrupted lands of fantasy; in my mind, it is an interesting fusion of the two.  This world has been corrupted by the demonic energies that were unleashed when the enemy crawled through the Breach.  Through the flashback chapters, we get to see what the world was like before the enemy appeared.  That world, ruled by the Seven and the Seraph Knights, had sky ships, and advanced technology.  The contrast between the past and present world is underlined with scenes of technology being cannibalised purely for survival purposes.  The present world, especially the Blasted Lands, reminded me of the Mad Max movies (the original ones; haven’t seen the latest) – stark, barren, dangerous with isolated pockets of humanity struggling to cling to life.

Chunks of rock jut out across the barren landscape, a row of giant’s teeth.  Repeated bombardments and exposure to poisonous demonic energies have taken their toll on the environment.  Craters pepper the ground like pockmarks.  There are no trees, no colour and little life to be seen.  The Blasted Lands are named without irony.

This one paragraph, in my mind, speaks volumes as to how far humanity has descended …

Stick-like people and bloated flies gather in the twilight, both drawn to the still warm corpse … By morning they have picked the bones clean.  By afternoon half of the people have died, their stomachs unable to accept the rich meat.  By evening their skeletons are bartered over by Necrotraders.

In New Horizon nothing is wasted.

Clearly, it’s not only the environment that has been tainted.  The enemy, the invaders, are demonic creatures, but in an inspired twist, Newman has made them little more than intangible essences – they need to possess people to function in the world.  It does not have to be a living person, neither is it a simple possession – they literally make their own bodies by mixing and matching from different corpses.  Icky!  Although most have been forcibly taken over and tainted by the demons, there are those who have willingly allowed the demons to inhabit their bodies.

The baby that features on the cover isn’t there purely for dramatic decoration.  She is the Vagrant’s constant companion, and how they came to be travelling together is revealed in the flashback chapters.  

Caring for and feeding an infant in a land where danger comes, not only from the demons, but from humans as well adds another layer of tension to the Vagrant’s mission.

To begin with, she’s ‘the baby’ or even just plain ‘it’.

But Newman develops her personality as well, and an engaging little personality she is.

The scenes depicting the interaction between her and the Vagrant are beautifully done …

The next kick is more vigorous.  Pulling back his coat once again, the Vagrant frowns down at the baby.  It stops kicking and looks up at him.  He raises his eyebrows at it and the baby smiles.  The cycle repeats several times, the baby smiling a little more with each repetition.

He goes to move on but urgent tugging at his collar demands attention.  He looks down at the baby, raising his eyebrows; in miniature, his gesture is mirrored.  The Vagrant’s eyebrows stretch a little higher, again he is matched.  For a time both hold their position.  There is no obvious winner in this contest, no clear rules.

Both parties break with dignity intact.

Newman doesn’t shy away from the practicalities of looking after a baby …

A fresh smell fills the room, pungent, violent.

The baby giggles.

The Vagrant sighs, folds the soiled cloth and hides it, a secret memento.

To feed the baby, the Vagrant acquires a goat.  And what a goat.  The goat very nearly, and in some scenes does, eclipse all the other characters.  Cantankerous, it is the epitome of stubbornness, with a mind of its own, and this line, in my opinion, describes the goat perfectly:

They pull up the goat with a rope.  She sways slowly, comments rarely, dark eyes seething, planning revenge.

There are other characters, two in particular, who throw in their lot with the Vagrant, but I won’t go into that.  For me, part of the joy of this book was not knowing what Newman had planned for the characters, and I was pleasantly blindsided. 

The action scenes were well described – as someone who struggles to write believable action scenes, I was impressed with the execution.  Speaking of fighting, let’s not forget the sword that is shown on the cover – the weapon that the Vagrant is fighting to deliver to the Shining City.  The enemy fear the mere sight of it, and it is beautiful, in more than looks alone.  Part of me wants to describe it, but, again, I don’t want to spoil the ‘reveal’ that unfolds in the story.

This is one of the best debut novels I’ve read, and my joint-favourite of 2015.  I found the plot well-paced, without any saggy bits.  The two different time lines worked well, in my opinion, fleshing out the character of the Vagrant, and gradually giving us an understanding of the events that has so changed the world.  Peter Newman has a wonderful turn of phrase; and I like the names he's given the enemy … the Usurper; the Uncivil; the Earmaker’s Three … and my favourites – The Knights of Jade and Ash; and the Hammer That Walks – talk about fuelling the imagination!

There are unanswered questions; I think there’s at least one more book, maybe a trilogy.  But I wasn’t left annoyed or frustrated at the end of the book.  Though I’m not usually a fan of trilogies and the like, I look forward to spending more time in the company of the Vagrant.  What I love most about him – he endures.