by Peter Newman
HarperVoyager, $16.99, 400pp
Published: May 2016
This debut novel from Peter Newman is an interesting one indeed because he clearly doesn't want to do what any other fantasy authors are doing. That's hardly a bad thing and he kept me engrossed. However, I'm not yet convinced that some of his successes are deliberate genius rather than fortunate accidents.
For a start, his prose is unique and I wonder if this was written to be read aloud like the epic poems that told of Gilgamesh and Beowulf. Certainly, this would be a gift for someone with a deep and resonant voice, ironically given that the most important character, the Vagrant of the title, appears to be unable to speak.
Everything is told in the present tense, even though this is presumably some sort of post‑apocalyptic future, including the interludes that start eight years ago and gradually catch up to the recent past. That really helps us feel like we're journeying through the Blasted Lands along with the Vagrant and his motley crew.
Many sentences are passive rather than active, odd for an action adventure whose blurb suggests that this is 'Mad Max meets The Gunslinger and The Book of Eli.' This suggests that much of the world has given up in the apparently unstoppable face of what has emerged from the Breach and spread across the land corrupting everything and everyone it meets.
There's also an insane amount of personification, as if everything we meet has as much to tell us as the actual people. Personification is a useful tool to the poet and lyricist but I've never seen it used in a novel to the degree that it is here. It lowers the importance of human beings and raises the importance of the detritus around them, not excluding the landscape itself.
Newman also uses adjectives that seem out of place but fit within his odd worldview. At one point the Vagrant 'raises a bloated weapon, twisted steel and living jade, discordant, suffering.' That's his sword, which has a name, the Malice, and which is the MacGuffin of this piece, the reason why a host of Infernals seek the Vagrant out.
If his prose is unique, so are his characters. The Vagrant is kept firmly mysterious, his sword marking him as a Seraph Knight, one of the protectors of the land, but he doesn't speak and he carries a little baby wherever he goes. He's certainly influenced by Max Rockatansky from the 'Mad Max' films, another character who wanders through a post‑apocalyptic landscape, saying little and doing good, as much through convenience as intention. However, I saw as much influence from the 'Lone Wolf and Cub' series, which has Ogami Itto demoted to ronin and travelling through the wilderness with a baby in tow, dispatching many with the sword he used as the shogun's executioner. More directly, it's no stretch to draw comparisons to Clint Eastwood's 'Man with No Name,' but that was influenced by Japanese samurai movies too.
And so we move ever northward with the Vagrant, the baby and their goat, plus whoever else joins them on the way for a whole variety of reasons. As we go, we gradually learn about what has happened to the land that they're travelling through and the people that they meet in cities with evocative names like Verdigris, Slake and Six Circles.
Eight years earlier, the earth cracked and out of the Breach came a host of Infernals. The comparison is clearly to Hell opening and spilling forth its demons into the world, a vision aided and abetted by the mythical tone to the prose. However, as the pages add up and the personification takes over our understanding of the story, we start to wonder if we should interpret the events of the past literally or as myths, even if they're less than a decade old.
Perhaps these demons who form and unform and corrupt the flesh of those who encounter them, merging them and changing them, are really personifications of nuclear fallout or toxic leakage. The Usurper, most dominant of those who escaped the Breach, is also known as Ammag, the Green Sun, which could have mythic interpretation. I agree that this is a stretch and I'm not suggesting that we should read the demonic hordes as anything other than literal, but the way Newman writes, we can't help but wonder about why he chose to write in the ways that he did here.
Certainly, the way the story evolves reads as much like legend as it does fact. We have no idea if this is supposed to be a future Earth or another planet entirely, but the sun has split into two, suggesting a far future. Technology is mostly mediaeval, especially early on, but as we move ever northward away from the effects of the Breach, we encounter more advanced technology. Back in the blasted lands, the cities are shaped by the powers of the infernals, whether that be the Usurper or the Uncivil, who rebels against his rule and forges a new empire instead. What they do feels like demonic power but could translate into radiation or chemical reaction, if readers want to read scientific terminology under the mythical prose.
I can see 'The Vagrant' finding something of a cult audience. There was a lot of growth in the wasteland community even before the insane success of 'Mad Max: Fury Road' and that built it exponentially. It's an interesting subculture, forged of punks, gearheads and makers who revel in the idea of civilisation falling so that they can rebuild it in their own image.
This subculture is a really odd mix of pessimism and optimism; a creative community that combine old tech and old skills with new tech and new skills to fashion fresh devices as appropriate. Yet to exist, they inherently have to destroy, if not civilisation itself then at least its objects to use as parts.
'The Vagrant' mirrors that incredibly well. We follow a hero on a quest, even if we don't really understand who or what or why, because he's so archetypal a catalyst for positive change and the baby he carries with him is just as archetypal a symbol of hope. Yet they walk through destruction, corruption and decay and the book itself feels pessimistic as a whole, a tone that is reinforced often. The Vagrant ends up doing good, in large part because he encounters so much bad.
It's as if Newman tells us that the world is corrupt and has to fall, but there's good within it ready to restore order, even if it isn't where we might expect. Maybe we need to have that wasteland mindset of creation out of destruction to really get what he's saying, but I, for one, found 'The Vagrant' a thoroughly interesting read. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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