A debut novel needs to do only one thing – it should firmly cement its author’s name in the minds of readers and within the genre itself, a physical prophecy that foreshadows the author’s future success. THE VAGRANT by Peter Newman is one such novel – a teaser at the brilliance that surely lies ahead in Newman’s career as a professional author.
Set in a post-apocalyptic world following a demonic invasion from the ‘Breach’, we follow the titular Vagrant on his quest to deliver a legendary sword to the far-off bastion of humanity, the Shining City. Accompanying him is a baby, a stubborn goat, and a young man desperate for repentance.
Dialogue often forms the heart of a novel, but not so in THE VAGRANT. The Vagrant himself – one of the last Seraph Knights, near-mythical warriors of an old knightly order that once stood watch over the Breach – is a mute. He cannot speak, but his gestures and actions convey far more emotion than any sentence could. The Vagrant is a mysterious man, driven by a sense of obligation and duty, conflicted by his own personal morals, in constant battle against the decrepit, decaying world around him.
The world itself is painted quite well. This is a very bleak future world, and I couldn’t help but draw parallels between THE VAGRANT and the film, The Book of Eli. Although books and films are usually separate mediums, these two shared a similar concept of a powerful, almost unstoppable warrior on a quest to deliver a holy artifact in a world tainted with evil and decay. This isn’t a criticism – in fact, I enjoyed THE VAGRANT more because of these similarities.
Peter Newman’s real genius lies in making the reader sympathize with the villains. And not just feel mildly sorry for them, but actually connected with the supposed antagonists. The powerful demon hordes that streamed through the Breach are not unified, but constantly shifting their alliances. The ‘big bad’, the Usurper, was responsible for killing one of the holy Seven, angel-like beings who governed the world and were worshiped by the Seraph Knights of the Winged Eye. The Usurper did not, however, manage to stamp complete control over his demonic subjects – the Uncivil, an abomination of death and reanimation, has been plotting against him in the eight years since the Breach; and the nomadic First of the Undead scattered quickly, evading the Usurper’s control.
These uneasy alliances and minor conflicts gradually escalate throughout the book, coupled with flashbacks and scene breaks that force the reader to accept a difficult truth – not everything demonic is completely evil. These infernal creatures are grappling with concepts of identity, purpose, allegiance, obligation, and freedom – all remarkably human concepts that blur the line between ‘evil demon’ and ‘anti-hero’.
That might be THE VAGRANT’s most powerful message – it proves that not even a demonic apocalypse can extinguish the flickering flame that is mankind’s hope of a better world. The Vagrant’s unshakable love for the baby is tangible and endearing, and the platonic bond he builds with the young man, Harm, is not there just to make up the numbers, but because they need eachother beyond mere convenience.
With all of this said, however, there’s a catch. If you have scrolled ahead already, you might be wondering why there is a star missing at the end of this review. With all this praise, you might think a 5-star review was in order.
THE VAGRANT’s prose takes a little while to get used to. Not because it’s present-tense (a style that is apparently bleeding from YA into fantasy these days), but because everything is very vague. The demons are described in a method not unlike painting a portrait with a feather dipped in ink – you get a vague outline, but nothing concrete.
This problem extends in the world’s lore, too. Exactly what The Seven are is never convincingly explained; how the mythical swords work is left for the reader to guess at; and the nature of ‘essence’ (the soul) is purposefully ignored. Although I can understand loose description for the demons, skipping over the mechanics of the world’s magic makes it difficult to fully grasp the whole scope of the novel.
At this stage, I haven’t heard whether there will be sequels in this series. I hope there are, because there are too many unanswered questions by the final page. Edit: from Peter Newman himself, we can expect a sequel in 2016! Hopefully this clarifies the original ending and solves some of the loose plot threads.
These are all, however, very minor problems.
THE VAGRANT is a must-read debut novel for anybody with even a passing interest in fantasy. Grimdark is a curious sub-genre of fantasy, but Peter Newman has gone beyond an ordinary tale of a knight on a mission of holy salvation, instead painting a more complex picture that muddies the boundary between ‘good’ and ‘evil’. The demons are clearly vile and corrupt, but then again, humanity allowed their world to be corrupted, and many times throughout the novel, we see humans making horrible decisions that end up with many hundreds or thousands of lives being lost.
Shining out of the darkness is a heart-warming tale about one man, his baby and his goat, on a mission to make a difference in the world, no matter how small. Despite the depravity and cruelty of the world, there are still small beacons of hope shining, proof that even in the worst of situations, humanity can survive and become better – as long as they’re willing to try.
A gripping narrative set in a grimdark post-apocalypse, with complex characters and moral dilemmas that will stay with you for a long time after.
The prose takes a while to adapt to, and the world-building – while interesting – lacks the concrete details to build a complete picture.
A memorable debut from a clearly exceptional author. Proof that humanity can hold on even in the darkest of times and against the greatest of odds, with the power of love and the spirit of kindness.