After reading 'The Malice' last month, the middle volume in Peter Newman's unique post-apocalyptic trilogy, I knew that I had to follow up with the finalé this month. You see, I thoroughly enjoyed the wild originality of the first book, 'The Vagrant', in which the lead character silently and stubbornly stumbles his way north through the demonic horrors which had emerged from the Breach, but I was flummoxed by its first sequel, featuring Vesper, the Vagrant's daughter, talkatively, if just as stubbornly, stumbling her way back south to close the Breach. The two books were partners and mirrors, complimentary but different, seemingly the product of the same pen but with a thoroughly changed man behind it. I wanted to see if book three would make sense of that and, having now read it, I guess it does.
It's been ten years now since Vesper sealed the Breach and five years since she set out on a self-imposed quest, a mission of diplomacy to bring the disparate peoples of what used to be the Empire of the Winged Eye into an alliance through which they can move forward together in peace, whether human, infernal or some tainted mixture of the two. In short, she closed a page of history when she closed the Breach in the previous volume and she's now set on opening the next page. The initial question, of course, is whether the people in the Shining City in the north, the heart of the Empire which the infernals never reached, are going to be remotely on board with this.
That question soon changes. Theoretically the Empire is ruled by the Seven of the title, though they spend their time sleeping in their citadel which floats above the Shining City. Only one of them, Gamma by name, awoke when the Breach opened and chose to travel south to fight the creatures that emerged from it, but she, as wildly powerful as she was, died in the ensuing battle. The Vagrant's quest in the first book was to return her sword, a sentient creature of its own that contains what's left of her essence, back to the Seven. However, they're awake now because Vesper visited them in book two after successfully closing the Breach and berated their sleeping bodies for doing jack about any of it. Asleep though they were, they heard and they weren't happy.
So now, Alpha, the leader of the Seven, is awake and busy cleansing infernal taint wherever he can find it. I'd be remiss if I didn't also mention that, as beneficial, if overdue, as that sounds, it isn't. His take on cleansing is to murder the majority of the population in every town he visits. He's genocide with wings and he's killing the people he's supposed to protect. Of course, this state of affairs is only going to escalate and much of this book is taken up with a war between Alpha, with most of the rest of the Seven following him, and whatever coalition of humans, infernals and tainted Vesper can cobble together from every city in the south with a mixture of charisma, will and political expediency, not to mention wild and unfounded trust.
And it's a particular weird coalition. Beyond Vesper herself and her Order of the Broken Blades, an army which is drawn to follow her even though they're also technically loyal to the Empire, there are a wild variety of misfits. There's her father, the Vagrant, and one of the Seven, Delta, whom he's managed to silently convert to his side. Of course, Vesper still has the sentient sword of Gamma, so they sort of have two of the Seven with them. The infernals aren't led because each faction has their own leader, but primary among them is perhaps Samael, who started out as a fisherman but became something much more through being tainted. He wants to be a Seraph Knight, one of Empire's fighting elite, though of course his taint disallows that; his drive is a good part of the moral side of this book, though it's spread around liberally. There's also the First, an infernal who load balances his essence across a hundred or more bodies, each able to function on its own.
What this becomes is the ultimate underdog battle. Vesper isn't a leader by choice but by entropy and she isn't remotely prepared for the onslaught of the Seven, who were created, as we learn in the many flashbacks to the pre-apocalyptic world of a thousand years earlier, to be almost gods. This background is fascinating and it's an important thing here, key to understand what's going on, why it's important and how it differs from what was originally intended. It wasn't in the previous book, where the first half of these flashbacks served mostly as an odd distraction from what felt like it should have been the main thrust of the story. Put together, though, it works well, suggesting that the trilogy, or at least the second and third parts of it, really ought to be read together.
There's a vast amount going on here behind the ostensibly simple conflict between the weird but good guys and the supposedly good but apparently lost guys. Much of it, of course, has to do with the age old question of what it means to be human. It doesn't stretch things to argue that Vesper does much of what she does because of her daughter, Reela, who's tainted. To Vesper, she's human because, well, of course she is. To Alpha, however, she's tainted and so must be cleansed from the world, in other words killed as soon as possible. Without any wiggle room to be had, this becomes a battle that takes Reela and extrapolates her up to a grand scale. If she's human, then what about Samael or the First or the Backward Child or any of the wild creations enhanced by necrotech? Perhaps we reach an answer by the time all the smoke clears but perhaps we have to answer it ourselves.
I have a feeling that the Vagrant trilogy is so unusual that we're likely partners in its success or failure: we'll get out of it what we put into it. It would be easy for different people to focus on different aspects of it and enjoy it in completely different ways. Even though I struggled with the middle volume, I mostly understand now why Peter Newman went where he went with it. I recommend the trilogy highly but as a trilogy. Don't dip or you'll be confused and quite probably lost entirely. Start at the beginning and have the other books ready to go so you can work through them quickly as if they were one giant volume. ~ Hal C F Astell
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