When the silence of the tongue is as powerful as the edge of a sword.
The Vagrant is the debut novel of Peter Newman, a post demon apocalypse novel set in a dying fantasy world. It was a hard book to get into, presenting a steep learning curve and mashing up a bunch of different styles in an eclectic fashion, but once I got into the book the journey became absorbing and I found the payoff to be immensely satisfying. Persevere with this book, and you shall be rewarded.
The story follows a man known only as the Vagrant, a baby, and a goat as they journey through the demon-infested southern regions of the continent. The Vagrant is in possession of a sentient sword called The Malice, and it is his duty to deliver The Malice to the last bastion of humanity far to the north. There are some substantial obstacles in his path; demons are drawn to the power exuded by The Malice, food is impossible to find outside of the cities, and every city is controlled by a different demonic faction. The path is arduous, the purpose of the mission is cloudy at best, but there is always a small glimmer of hope to keep The Vagrant moving forward.
The Vagrant has a steep learning curve, with Newman simplying dropping you into the story armed with very little information. This steep learning curve is combined with an unfamiliar writing style - present tense omniscient narration - and a unique twist - the main character is a silent protagonist. There are also flashbacks, and scenes from the various demons perspectives that complicate the telling of the story. This can be hard to follow, especially when listening to the audio version of the book, and might be a barrier to readers who are on the fence with regards to acquiring this book. I didn't really get into this book until the Vagrant and his companions reached Verdigree, which was a full third of the way into the book, but after that I slowly started to fall in love with this book, especially when characters like Harm and The Hammer were introduced. In the end I feel much the same as I did when I finished Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson, that you can read through this book multiple times and continue to find cool things that you missed first time around.
I've been reading a lot of post-apocalypse books lately, but this is the first one in a long time to set it in a fantasy world with swords, necromancy, mutations, demons, and some advanced technology. Newman really let his creativity fly with this world, and the novel is so much better for it. The setting is a poisoned world, a dying world, with most of its inhabitants sitting somewhere on the wide spectrum of depression. It poses the question, how do you find the will to go on when the world around you has imploded and the people with the power to help you have abandoned you to your doom? It is a grim, gritty setting that makes the small beacons of hope and humanity shine so much brighter by contrast.
The last thing I want to talk about was my experience listening to the audio edition of The Vagrant. To be honest, I only purchased the audio version because the ebook was listed at $20, the paperback was in the vicinity of $30+, and I had a spare Audible credit lying around. The steep learning curve of The Vagrant was hard to follow in audio form, and I had to relisten to the first couple of chapters two or three times to really appreciate what was going on. I might not have made it through if it weren't for the sublime performance by the narrator Jot Davies. I can't stress enough how awesome Jot Davies is, how deftly he handles multiple characters and creatures, and how effectively he was able to bring to life a man who cannot speak. Reading text may be the easiest way to consume this novel, but the audiobook is by far the best way to consume this book, so if you have the choice and the means, make sure you experience Jot Davies' wondrous telling of this story.
Ryan Lawler, 9/10
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 passes 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 leader, The Seven, and its heroes, The Seraph Knights, the last defences of a once great civilisation are crumbling into dust. But the Shining City is far away and the world is a very dangerous place.
To my good fortune, I was lucky enough to be given an ARC of The Vagrant by the good people of Pulp Fiction Books, Brisbane (thanks to Ron, Iain and Beau). I had first seen the book when I was checking out the 2015 releases, placing it on my to-read list for the year. Thankfully I did not have to wait too long.
The story follows the travels and experiences of a character called the Vagrant, who is unable or unwilling to speak, which does set an interesting viewpoint for the reader. This is the first time I have read a novel in which the hero is mute and while this was mostly enjoyable, I would have liked a little more expression and movement while he was interacting with his world
*** Spoiler ***
This inability to speak is a relatively new event to the Vagrant, and I believe the character would have benefited from more unspoken (yes a pun!) frustration, as he tries to express himself fully to others. There were moments of irritation and aggravation but they were never fully expanded out and so didn’t last long enough for my tastes.
*** Spoiler End ***
The Vagrant has a well-established sense of purpose, moral code and an unerring conviction which singles him out as a sad flickering light in a sea of hopelessness and darkness that has tainted the Southern lands and its people. Hope and a belief in protecting his ward are the major factors that shape his choices, both good as well as bad, and these are what endear the character to the reader.
One of my favourite flights of fancy in the Vagrant was the diversity of the Demon forms after their emergence, corruption and mutation of the human hosts both alive and dead. Newman has written the Demons with colour and flare, conjuring images of the twisted monstrosities and creatures from your worst - and best - dreams. The description of the first Demons we are introduced to is strong, vivid and still remains imbedded in my imagination. A man shaped creature topped with the head twisted into the form of a giant clam. A fly buzzes along a dirty corridor, in a broken palace. The Clam face splits and the fly lands in its open maw, tasting its blood the Clam man has received its hidden message.
The one weakness I did have was the Demons did not come across as frightening or fearsome as they had more of a freakish and deformed feel but maybe that was the point.
*** Spoiler ***
Demons do not have a true form but are required to highjack bodies to survive.
*** Spoiler End ***
This body-jacking was an element of the story that I found very interesting and a step-away from the traditional depictions of demons. In one aspect this idea is straightforward in its use but I also think this may lead to something more.
I get a feeling that the Demons are running from something because it doesn’t feel like they are running towards anything. They feel more like refugees than invading army but I could be completely off here. The flow on effect of this thought was at times (to me anyway) there was a humanisation of the Demons, their desire for individuality and autonomy was very prevalent and in a somewhat abstract thought - could this then be seen as a universal desire or just something leached from the human host?
There is a truism in the reading of the Vagrant, that people are the same regardless of whether they are Demon tainted or not, that they will survive by any means and resist even when the idea of hope is just that - a dream long forgotten, secreted away within their heart. Why are these concepts true? Because we are human and Newman has captured this attitude and portrayed it well. The struggle to survive and the will of humankind to keep going anyway it can is a strong theme in the story.
One negative I did have was that I found the story to be a little swift in its timing and progression. The Vagrant has a desire to help people, which correspondingly spark a hidden flame for people to help him, but as he moves forward with friends, villains and Demons these experiences come across as rushed. I believe I understand Newman's premise to keep moving forward in the story but I wish there could have been time to savour the moment, to feel the pains and losses.
*** Spoiler ***
One specific instance of this was the befriending of Harm, a minor tainted human who decides to follow and speak for the Vagrant. The explanation given for Harm's (who at best can be called a natural survivor) faith in the Vagrant reads without depth and conviction, coming across as unbelievable. However, by placing myself in the mind frame of a person trying to survive in a world polluted and perverted, and then finding an individual who still holds true to a certain code and honour, I can see the edges of this devotion for the character.
*** Spoiler End ***
The Vagrant not just provides a progressive march forward, we are also provided a view of the past as every few chapters we are given a window into the events leading up to the Demon invasion, its results and the personal history of the Vagrant. Normally, I would say flashbacks can detract from the story but Newman has provided them sparingly and with content which is relevant. I would estimate a fifth of the book concerns these flashbacks, giving a just the right amount of information to keep us interested but could easily contain more without feeling too overloaded.
Fergus McCartan, 8/10
I read this this books based on the wonderful cover and the endorsements of both Ryan and Fergus. And it gets a big thumbs up from me. It was an interesting book, a little different from ones I had read before. It felt like it was written differently, and while this caused me to have to often re-read sentences this was not something I minded at all. In fact I enjoyed it.
It's quite a hard book to define as it touches on several genres. It is definitely a dystopia and much is like that found in post-apocalyptic fiction. But the apocalypse has not been caused by nuclear weapons or plague, it has been caused by an infestation of demons, who appeared through a breach in the land. And so war ensued as humans joined their 'gods' in a battle that no side really won, but the demonic horde certainly came out on top. And it is this post apocalyptic world that we are introduced to The Vagrant, the child he carries and the sentient sword that is so important to the human/god resistance.
I will be honest and admit that the bank-story of the war between the humans and the demons did not initially grip me and indeed left me a little confused at times. But this book is like that. Steven Erikson's Malazan books were exactly the same but this taught me to not get hung up on understanding everything, just roll with, sometimes authors explain things in their own time and, failing that, this is what re-reads are for.
The hook for me was the relationship between the Vagrant, the baby and the sword. Just who are they, what are the trying to achieve and where are they going. This is the story of the book and as the narrative progresses, segmented into far past, recent past and present, I became grealty enamoured and empathetic towards all three, plus the goat and a character called Harm who joins them. It might just be me, but I felt a love for Tolkien's Middle Earth running through these pages - it wasn't obvious but I feel certain I detected it.
By the time the half way point is reached I was under The Vagrants spell and sped towards the end, which found both satisfying and poignant. I would definitely recomment The Vagrant highly but would mention that it took me a while to get into both the story and the style of writing. Fans of dystopian, post apocalyptic stories with a healthy dose of demonic infestation will enjoy this book.
2 positive reader review(s) for The Vagrant
We first interviewed Peter Newman in 2015, following the release of his debut novel The Vagrant, a novel we enjoyed a great deal. Now, two years on, the third and final volume of the Vagrant trilogy, The Seven, is soon to be [...]
Christiana from UK
I loved this tale. Listened to it on Audible and was initially sceptical of being enthralled by a mute and the present tense. I hung in there and, by chapter 3, I was hooked. I found the dystopian world intriguing, the demonic beings and their motivations fascinating and the protagonists, including the goat, engaging. I consumed the second book, "The Malice", in quick succession and am seeking a space-filling read (recommendations please!) as I await the April 2017 release of the final novel, "The Seven" - although I think the audio release will be much later. A big shout out to Jot Davies for his superb narration (he now ranks in my top 3 favourite narrators) - each cast member had a distinctive voice (including the baby and each demonic entity). Most kudos of course to Peter Newman - who has fashioned something compelling in a fantasy space overladen with hackneyed tropes and themes.
Lorraine from Australia
At the beginning I was sceptical but by the end I was wishing instead of a stand alone book it was a series. Hopefully the author will write another with the same characters. I loved the way he built the vagrants character. It was strong and heroic. Well done.
Mark from Australia
I found The Vagrant difficult to keep the story-line in perspective. I needed to rely more on impressions rather than a feel for "being there". A familiar theme but with some interesting applications of imagination. The story-line was maybe a bit too convenient to offer realism. For me an average read. Thence the 6 out of 10.
8.5/10 from 4 reviews