29 November, 2021

LitStack Review: The Vagrant by Peter Newman

The Vagrant
Peter Newman
Harper Voyager
Release Date:  April 2015
ISBN 978-0-007593-0-88

The Vagrant is a very interesting book.  No, no, hear me out.  I don’t mean “interesting” because I’m casting around to find something nice to say, and “interesting” is a pretty safe word to do that.  I mean, “interesting” in that, although it is set in a familiar genre – archaic fantasy – and at times it seems like the terrain is routine, it keeps you engaged because it’s just so… interesting.

Most books accomplish this through bombast, gouts of sharply realized violence, or continually fracturing mini-cliffhangers – tried and true ways of keeping the reader interested. But author Peter Newman does this quite differently: he makes his main protagonist strangely vulnerable.

Set in a primitive time, which may or may not be a future ravaged Earth (it doesn’t really matter), the central character in The Vagrant never speaks, and he carries very little with him.  What he does carry, however, is of great import. One of the few remaining Seraph Knights of legend, he is equipped with the Malice, a sword that was once held by Gamma of the Seven herself, before she fell at the Battle of Red Wave when Ammag the Usurper and his malignant legion burst from the Breach to overwhelm the forces of the Empire of the Winged Eye. That was years ago, and since then the blight has covered the land, with monsters and corruption overtaking what once used to be a kingdom of men, while the remainder of the Seven stay safely ensconced on the other side of the world (or so it seems).
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The Vagrant – for that’s all that we ever know him as – is on a mission. Along with his sword, which he means to carry to the Shining City, the stronghold of the Seven, he has with him, hidden and secret, a child, a baby. He means to also deliver this baby to the Shining City, because it is one of the few remaining creatures who is untainted and pure; only in the Shining City will the child be safe from unsavory forces looking to profit from such a prize.
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And all the while, the Vagrant is being hunted, by agents of the Usurper, and by those who wish to carve out their own despotic presence in a blown land.

‘I have a finger in the skull of a Zero, who tells of singing coins and a silent man who hides his treasures.’

‘It must be, master.’

‘He who tore our Kin?’

‘It must be, master.’

‘He who bears the Malice?’

‘It can be no other, master.’

‘I want him.’

The story follows a fairly predictable path, but along the way we see glimpses of something that feels more genuine and relatable than is regular fare in this type of tale. The Vagrant actually interacts with the child in a very real way, concerned for its welfare, yes, but also delighting in small milestones that every parent will recognize. There are also surprising turns, such as my personal favorite:  how a horror known as The Hammer that Walks is vanquished. Plus, the ways that the blighted creatures of this land communicate and interact with each other is more nuanced than might be expected in such squicky fare, which gives author Peter Newman a lot more leeway in how his monstrosities react to their environment, and to themselves. These unconventional treatments help the landscape from getting too rote – or too bleak, for there is little in this world that is good, or honorable, or even remotely beautiful.
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And then there’s the goat. Just – the goat. She’s the Vagrant’s sometimes reluctant, often stubborn companion, supplying the child with precious milk and us with welcome comic relief. Well, when she’s not saving the day, that is.

You have to have a bit of patience when reading The Vagrant; there’s a lot that you aren’t given right off, and the use of a third person, present tense, omniscient narrative voice to tell the story is disconcerting at times. But as the story progresses, you get inextricably pulled in. In fact, as I read the book I  got the distinct impression that I was taking part in an epic online RPG (role playing game), where the title character advances from one hostile territory to another, always moving forward towards an increasingly more difficult but still attainable goal. As a reader and a gamer, I found this a mighty exciting development.

And a very, very interesting experience – in the best of all possible ways.

~ Sharon Browning

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