The Malice
Peter Newman
Harper Voyager
Release Date:  March 7, 2017
ISBN 978-0-00-820103-6

The Malice, the second book in Peter Newman’s Vagrant Trilogy, picks up shortly after where the first book, The Vagrant, left off. (While it’s not necessary to read The Vagrant before The Malice, you’ll miss a lot of exposition and some wonderful nuances if you do). Baby Vesper has grown into a lively and curious girl, living outside of the Shining City along with the man she has come to know as her father, as well as her “Uncle” Harm. And goats. They have a herd of goats.

But the land is still uneasy. Although the Usurper has been defeated, the Breach remains, and there are hints that an even greater threat is rising. While the Seven continue to sleep, the Vagrant is asked to once more pick up the powerful sword of the Winged Eye, known as the Malice, to defend the world, but the toll the last journey took on him was too steep; now that he has found a modicum of peace, he refuses.

Still, the sword is aware. It will not be silent. It makes itself known to the curious if naive young girl and they, along with a harmonized pair of warriors known as the single entity Duet, set off to address the new threat pooling in the Breach.  Oh, and there’s a goat. A baby goat, known as the Kid. It tags along, too, for what is a heroic tale without its trusty goat?

So let’s see – an eclectic group of companions on an epic quest against a momentous evil while carrying a powerful talisman. Where have we heard this before? But lest you think that Peter Newman is penning the same old-same old, think again. The Malice, like The Vagrant before it, has a completely different feel from previous fantasy fare, in cadence, in environment, in voice.

But what I’d like to focus on in this review is what I feel truly sets these books apart:  Mr. Newman’s vision of the monsters in his stories (and there are a lot of them) – the tainted, the warped, the mutated; the essences that pollute and reengineer native species, the rot and the bloat and the corruption that invades and warps and despoils. That which pours from the Breach.

They have an intelligence but not a strict morality – or immorality. They are both communal and selfish. Many are able to reason, but consume unilaterally. Some are no more than impulses, but others know enough to grovel, and a few are intuitive and manipulative. Yet their motives are not inherently evil, other than their penchant for utter corruption makes them so.

But rather than simply talking about it, here is a taste:

Essence pulses unseen across the world, spiderwebbing light that grows thick over the southern continent, linking a hundred heads. There is a single moment of cohesion, the bittersweet taste of old majesty and then the First becomes fragmented again.

Unprotected essence is burned by the angry suns, diminished by the hate of the world as it retreats back into its many shells.

The First feels a terrible pain, lingering far longer than the instant of bliss that preceded. The First accepts the trade, considers it worthwhile. Gradually, the burning subsides, allowing the First to take action. From its many hiding places, it speaks and rumours spread like a sudden rain:  the Malice is returning. The Malice is vulnerable. The one who ends the Malice can name their reward and the First will grant it.

Responses are varied and instant.

The hungry dispossessed at the north end of the landmass lick their lips and sharpen their sticks.

Across the flatlands, Usurperkin tribes compete with Mottled Walkers and Pug Packs, boasting and posturing.

In Verdigris, the news has to compete with the sudden onset of plague, but those in power share knowing looks and guards start double shifts at the gate.

Word even reaches New Horizon. In the high courts of the Demagogue, many sweat, suddenly insecure in their seats of power. Inevitably, news trickles through the rotten city, passed from slaves to spies and gossips, spreading like a virus. Soon, a hopeful takes the news to the Iron Mountain, looking to swap the information for something more tangible. He trades with Doctor Zero, who pays him well. When the man has gone, Doctor Zero adds another scar to the white criss-crosses on his hands and whispers into the blood that beads there.

Flies come, drinking deep of Zero’s message before flying further south, where even the First does not care to go; where land blisters and air quakes, where Fallen Palaces lay and beyond that, where madness spits in the eye of sanity, and demons run, fearful.

Pardon for using such a long quote, but this demonstrates the beauty and magnitude of Mr. Newman’s prose far better than I could by blathering on about it. His villains (for lack of a better word) are complex and nuanced without being obtuse, and it’s as glorious as it is creepy. And it’s very, very creepy.

Listen, there are things you can pretty much count on in epic fantasy: the hero is going to be good, if flawed. The powerful talisman will be key to victory. The companions will both hinder progress and save the day. In the end, either all will be lost or won. But something you can count on with the Vagrant Trilogy from Peter Newman, at least thus far:  you cannot trust that all which is hideous is monstrous, and you can, indeed, bargain with the devil. Well, at least one of them. Whether this is a good thing or not remains to be seen.

The third book in the trilogy, The Seven, will hit bookshelves on October 7, 2017.

~ Sharon Browning

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