A sequel that, while good, does not live up to the heights of the original. Laden with forced attempts at humour, some confused threads, and the neglect of The Vagrant’s most pivotal characters.
The Malice is the sequel to Peter Newman’s fantastic debut novel The Vagrant. While The Malice is rife with the same depressing imagery and grim fantastical themes, it now follows different characters, on very different journeys. This is a unique setting, carried forward by the world building of its predecessor, and is full of strange and wonderful creations.
Rather than following The Vagrant’s titular, and otherwise unnamed, character, this book continues the story from the perspective of the infant that he spent the whole novel trying to protect; Vesper. The Malice itself refers to the sword wielded by the Vagrant previously, and now carried with less reluctance by his adoptive daughter. Having found peace, the Vagrant rejects the call of the sword when it realises the danger rife outside the confines of their habitual farmstead. Feeling the burden of her father’s struggle, Vesper makes the brave choice of becoming the sword’s bearer and carrier. Joined on her frightful journey are the Kid (the youngest offspring of the cankerous goat from The Vagrant) and Duet, a ‘harmonized’ couple of warriors who work in perfect synchronicity with each other. Rather than making an attempt to escape the Breach, the hole in the world that spews forth creatures of violent intent, Vesper’s path is one to seal that Breach and save the Apocalyptic world beyond the Shining City.
This story is almost a mirror of the previous. The Vagrant was so unique because it wasn’t scared to stray from the formulaic story of person finds sword, said person quests to defeat all powerful antagonist. Instead it was about a seasoned warrior fleeing the danger of the villain in order to save a child. Newman took away the protagonist’s ability to speak, so we were left with a man who expressed himself in his actions. It worked. It was a wonderful deviation from the norm. What disappointed me about The Malice is that Newman has now decided to embrace that archaic structure and give us a story thread that is far too familiar. Girl discovers sword, girl encounters unique characters and they form a fellowship bonded by their desire to destroy the great evil. The only thing preventing this story from becoming a cliché is the depth of its roster and the variety in their personalities.
One of the strongest parts of this story is Duet. The character(s) are extremely well written and fraught with complex traits that depict human emotion in a very unhuman world. Through Duet we suffer the emotional turmoil of loss, betrayal, and the way that this emotional burden can cripple the innate strength of a person. Duet isn’t a simple tragedy though. Her character is written with a hint of humour, mostly in her exasperation of the goat that Vesper is so determined to protect. For me, it was these moments that provided levity in a character that could have been weighted to heavily with emotional baggage.
While Duet’s reaction to the Kid provides the humour, the actions of the Kid and the way it is treated by Vesper is quite baffling. The Kid seems to be Newman’s attempts at trying to recreate one of the strengths of The Vagrant. The goat, Nanny, in The Vagrant, was a clever little addition. A goat that refused to relent in the face of evil, and, in fact, even refused to help in the face of danger. It was an angry little creature that acted very much as you would expect a goat to act. It tried to flee, it got pissed off at being rendered captive, and was oblivious to the fact that the Vagrant was actually bonding with it. The Kid, on the other hand, is a burden. The reason for it being brought along is nonsensical, it is constantly putting the protagonists in danger, and by all rights it should have died early on. This is not really a criticism of the character. It is a kid. It has no survival instinct yet as it is new to the world. What is confusing is that Vesper seems intent on putting the creature’s well-being above all others. This weakens Vesper’s character quite a great deal. It seems that Newman overlooked common sense in an attempt to simply try to recreate one of the unique arcs from The Vagrant. Unfortunately, he fails.
This leads on to Vesper herself. She is nowhere near as compelling a character as the Vagrant was. Her greatest failing is her naivety. She believes that she is able to confront an evil that a whole army is too ill-equipped to fight. Although brought up by the Vagrant, Vesper is not a warrior, nor is she particularly world wise. Newman has a tendency, throughout the book, to present her kind nature as a means of making her a likeable character, but this is at the expense of realism. There is no way she should be able to escape the events that befall her, simply because she is too nice to do what is necessary to survive. This is the complete antithesis of the Vagrant, who made morally questionable decisions in order to ensure that he endured, and for that I loved him.
Away from the human aspect of the story, we are given more of an insight in to the Infernals. In this new perspective we are shown that even though they are born of the Infernals, not all of the tainted themselves are intrinsically evil. Samael was a scene stealer. Everything with him in was rich with character development and intrigue. You know he should be evil, you know that his thoughts aren’t always pure, but he is the lesser evil, constantly at odds between what he is and what he wants to be. There is a goodness ingrained within Samael that is very subtle, but inferred by the kindness he occasionally displayed in spite of himself. In this he is a reminder of the Vagrant himself. A character that is not really good, and makes morally questionable decisions, but overall is trying to do the right thing from their own perspective.
The Infernals are all well-crafted individuals. They are very different in their grotesqueness, and their selfish desires are destructive, even against their own kind. They are what makes Samael an anti-hero, and provides some of the greatest set pieces littered throughout the book. The Usurper was a great villain in the original story, and while the Yearning may be a physically bigger threat, it seems to be lacking the personality that is desperately needed of a villain. The Yearning is more of a focal plot point than an actual entity. It is there to bring the characters together in their plight and nothing else. Luckily, the rest of the Infernals are morbidly fantastic. Gutterface, The Backwards Child, and Hangnail provide very real threats with the addition of unique characteristics and personalities. These sections of the book are a real joy to read.
Threaded throughout the main narrative of the story was the tale of Massassi who first encounters the Breach. This insert is set thousands of years before the main story and encapsulates the first encounter of the Breach by the somewhat callous figure of Massassi. She is not bad, and she is not good. What she does is whatever is necessary to prevent the Breach flooding the world with Infernals. Her methods are sometimes deplorable, but it raises the question of the greater good and what is acceptable when your task is the preservation of your world. It is a clever study in to the boundaries of what makes someone relatable or not and works well as an intermission from the story as a whole.
The Malice is a book overshadowed by its forebear. Relying too much on the formulaic fantasy troupes means that it is a disappointment compared to The Vagrant’s genre breaking take on the fantasy world. The characters are a mixed bag, with Vesper being a bit of a disappointment compared to the more relatable and enigmatic Vagrant. What saves this book, though, is its roster of supporting character, all of them different and unique. The morbid world and interesting themes mean that this book is a must read, even if it is not quite up there with its predecessor.