Two and a half years ago, I reviewed 'The Vagrant', the debut novel by Peter Newman, a post-apocalyptic fantasy that didn't play out remotely like other post-apocalyptic fantasies. Before re-reading that review, I remembered the tone above all, a mythic tone that accompanied the deeds of the Vagrant, an unnamed accidental hero slogging his way north with a baby in his arms in a world where humans were demoted to the value of things. Re-reading it now, I realise that I saw it as a standalone book with cult potential.
Now, the reason I'm revisiting that review is because I've just finished 'The Malice', the first sequel to 'The Vagrant' (the trilogy is wrapped up by 'The Seven', which is already in print). Looking up Peter Newman further tells me that he's actually the husband of Emma Newman, whose Split Worlds series of five novels I'm coincidentally finishing up this month. The Vagrant Trilogy (it seems odd to call it that for reasons I'll explain later) is notably different from the Split Worlds books, but there's a recognisable streak of humanity that runs through this one.
In many ways, 'The Malice' is a mirror image of 'The Vagrant'.
In that first book, our mysterious hero wends his weary way northward, from the Breach in the south which polluted the planet (which may or may not be ours) with infernal demonic creatures to the Shining City in the north, in order to return a rather special sword. This is the Malice of the title, inside which is the remaining essence of Gamma, one of the Seven who rule the Empire of the Winged Eye. Gamma fell while battling the Usurper, the leader of the demon hordes, and so returning what's left of her within her sword is a palpable as well as a symbolic act.
In 'The Malice', the Vagrant has retired his role as Seraph Knight to tend a small goat farm outside the Shining City. It's his daughter, the baby that he carried north in the first book, who takes up the sword's call and makes her quest in the opposite direction. Her job is to take the Malice back to the Breach and, after defeating the vast Infernal known as the Yearning, which is currently emerging slowly but surely into the world, seal it up so as to block any further entry from the infernal realms.
Many things seem deliberately opposite here, beyond the journey being in the opposite direction. Unlike her father, our new hero has a name, Vesper, and while she too carries a kid with her, it's not a human child but a young goat. While my memory tells me her father used the sword a lot, she doesn't; she's actually wary of drawing it and she worries that she's not really called, so putting those around her in danger. She has companions too, a pair of tough warriors known as Harmonized because they're literally in tune with each other, something that resonates when half of the pair dies in battle and the other half has to cope without.
Most importantly, there's a completely different tone. The Vagrant was a tough man, who understood the slime at the bottom of the food chain and was able to interact naturally with it. Vesper is, for want of a better word, nice. She's quieter and more subdued than 'sunshine and rainbows' might suggest but she's seemingly unable to grok the darkness pervading the Blasted Lands and she certainly can't partake in it. Instead, she brings a positivity, an abiding tolerance and an ache to help everyone to a landscape that's often without hope. At times she seems Christ-like in her virtue and I'm sure that's not by accident.
Early on, I found this new approach lacklustre. It seemed very personal, with the big picture broken down into smaller, isolated pockets. We visit some on the way south, like the towns of Wonderland and Verdigris. The Vagrant visited Verdigris too, but it was just another downtrodden stop on a consistently downtrodden journey for him; now it's become its own city with its own identity, which Vesper affects with her attitude and demeanour.
Eventually, I came to appreciate it, but it took a long while and I do plan on revisiting the first two novels in this series to be able to compare them properly. I was generally more interested in the other two strands of plot that Newman spins into motion.
The first follows a halfbreed named Samael, a human being corrupted by Infernal essence into something more and different. He's been watching the Breach since the early days and he clearly has a purpose, but it isn't any of the things that comes up, such as being a proposed replacement for the Usurper. He's searching for that purpose and he heads into trouble to find it, which is often rather icky, such as the point where he swaps his own eyeball for another in order to take on mastery over a creature known as Dogspawn. I should add that, while this is definitely icky, it isn't horrific. This is very much a work of fantasy not horror, even when it feels like it should be the latter.
The other occurs during a flashback of over 1,100 years to provide some background to the world that these characters inhabit. The main character is Massassi, a young lady who gains powers that set her apart from everyone else. What's important is that she finds the Breach before it opens and dedicates her life to ensuring that humanity is ready for the moment that it does. It's hard to read her entirely as a hero but she is that, though irony trumps her great achievements in a particularly cruel manner.
The former track eventually connects with the main thrust of the story with Vesper heading south, but the latter serves only to explain some of what our primary characters take for granted. Those chapters are well interspersed so that we only learn what we need at the time. It's rather unfortunate that Massassi's initial spiritual quest, which plays out in some ways like a martial arts movie, seems more substantial than Vesper and her fears that she's not worthy. I'm not sure how Newman could have written it any other way, of course, because the point is that Vesper is heroic in large part because she doesn't think that she's heroic.
For at least half this novel, I was underwhelmed, but it started to grab hold of me and, by the time I turned the last page, I was intrigued with where it took us and eager to jump into 'The Seven', the final novel in the trilogy. Maybe that will explain why it's become known as the Vagrant trilogy, given that that character has precisely nothing to do in this book. So far, the most important consistent character is the Malice, a sword with wings and a living eye. It surely seems like the Malice trilogy to me thus far! Let's see how that changes next month with book three. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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