(2015) Peter Newman, Harper Voyager, £14.99, hrdbk, 404pp, ISBN 978-0-007-59307-1
To me The Vagrant has a slightly misleading cover as we are given a hooded figure (so hooded that his face is in shadow), who wears a tattered coat, with one hand balancing a sword across his shoulders, while his other hand holds a bundle of baby close to his chest, and all this beneath a looming cityscape, crowding in on him from both sides. I say, misleading because 'The Vagrant' we read beyond this cover would never be so brazen to reveal the fabled sword that he carries or the baby tucked within the confines of his coat. Both are precious to him. The sword is a lost treasure, bearing great power that many covet, because of its worth or because they want to see it – and the forces of darkness christen the weapon 'The Malic' – destroyed. The baby is also coveted, but it’s probably better not to dwell on why and what for in a world where body parts of the living and dead are sought after. As for the name 'Vagrant'? Given that our hero cannot utter a word, and has to communicate by facial expressions and gestures, I’d be hard pressed to remember an instance when someone else, other than Newman, actually refers to our wandering hero as “The Vagrant”, although he does gather a few other names along the way.
Eight years ago, ten thousand Seraph Knights fought in the Battle of the Red Wave, fighting on the side of the Empire of the Winged Eye, fighting alongside Gamma, one of the fabled, all-mighty, Seven, but the Seven have been complacent, too remote from human affairs in their ivory towers in the Shining City. It has taken them over a year to deliberate what to do when the first demonic hordes started rising from the Breach, and when they finally decide to fight, those that have risen from the Breach have a foothold in this world and are waiting for them. Incredibly, Gamma falls, along with eight thousand knights, and soon the two thousand that remain are reduced to only a handful, and the world around the Breach starts to change, become malignant, and the demonic entity known as the Usurper is created and eight years later, travelling across this devastated world walks a stranger, a man with a mission, bearing two secrets - gamma’s sword and a baby, and he has to get them both to the Shining City.
Again, as I sometime mention in other reviews, I am reminded of that line out of Amadeus when the King complains to Mozart that his music has 'too many notes', and if you have ever listened to the jazz compositions or classical music that Frank Zappa wrote, you will know what I mean as they are just too busy. There is a heck of a lot going on in Newman’s debut novel as we journey with the Vagrant and various “hangers on” and encounter a whole host of exotic characters and equally exotic, or decaying locations. The invention here is probably on a par with the 'Arabat' novels of Clive Barker, the series of Fourth World DC comics of the late Jack Kirby, and more recently The Relic Guild by Edward Cox. Rather like Cox’s novel the story is told in a linear fashion, punctuated by a series of past events, that become more and more recent, thus we learn of the Breach being breached and the fall of Gamma, right up until a year ago, and these glimpses into the past reveal the story of the Vagrant, why he carries Gamma’s sword and whom the baby belongs to. Given that this is an uncorrected proof copy, some of these chapters set in the past did slip into the present when I think they should have been a brand new chapter, no doubt something that will be corrected for the final edition.
The Vagrant is not really my cup of tea, and I had problems with all the situations and scenarios and the denseness of the description in places and a lack of lead character viewpoint, in a writing style that reminded me of William Gibson and Gene Wolfe because of its tendency to distance things slightly through a present tense, observational delivery. Credibility was also stretched in for too many places where the plot could be termed as 'and with one mighty leap the Vagrant was free'. Yet, despite these misgivings, I did devour whole chunks of the novel at one sitting, and I did even start to care about the minor characters, even the goat that gets dragged along behind them to provide milk for the infant. One character in particular showed interesting character development and could have spawned a few interesting plot lines, but no, Newman ruthlessly cut them down, or rather the Vagrant did, albeit reluctantly. He is the archetypal hero, the stranger, on a quest, on a mission: the man with almost no name that changes everything. He does not speak nor do we get into his head, rather we see how he reacts and interacts with others and the effect he has on the lives of those he encounters, a flickering light of hope in a land of darkness. So I look forward to seeing how that effect continues in the sequel called The Malice due out next year.
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