A story that is both compelling and complex, and worthy of an acclaim that it doesn’t yet seem to have.
When looking for a new fantasy book to read, I always strive to find something that is a bit different. In my opinion there are far few novels these days that try to take a fresh approach to the genre and are happy sitting within the confines of the established boundaries. The Vagrant is not one of those books. It is so far removed from anything that I have ever read that I genuinely struggled to put it down (the fact I finished it in just over four days says it all really).
So what is it about this book that is so compelling that it grabs your attention and wrestles with it until you submit to its enigma? Well the first thing I should start with is the story. Newman has no qualms about throwing you head first in to this tainted world so full of ingenious characters. We are placed immediately alongside the plight of the Vagrant, although not necessarily in his shoes as we view his actions from the perspective of an outsider; someone hovering over events and analysing them with a perfectly efficient narrative. This Vagrant wanders a world full of monsters, known as Infernals, and desperate citizens willing to do anything to survive. On his journey towards a faraway safe haven he is accompanied by a baby, a sentient sword called the Malice, and a perpetually vexed goat. But on this journey, the Vagrant is also hunted by the Knights of Jade and Ash, soldiers of the most powerful Infernal known only as the Usurper, who seek to destroy the Malice for their master.
A criticism that I saw prominent in many reviews of The Vagrant was that Newman casts the reader in to a world that is not fully explained, which results in an arduous first few acts to the book. I didn’t get this at all. Yes there is a mystery to it all, but without that mystery I feel that so much of this story, especially the plight of the characters, would be lost. As the reader we constantly feel that there is so much more to this world than what we see, as the majority of the time we are travelling alongside the mute Vagrant. This adds an element of intimacy that you fail to get with stories writhing full to the brim with characters and backstory. We get glimpses of what the world has to offer, such as the civil war between the Usurper and the ever rebelling Infernal, the Uncivil. We see the weight of this conflict through the towns that the Vagrant visits, the people that he wishes to help, the desperation plaguing the communities and the oppressed and crushed streets that pump the vileness to their hearts. Then there are the Seraph Knights who are almost a myth in the world we traverse. Their legend is boundless, but their existence is all but ethereal. We know very little of them other than many were led by one of the Seven, who are almost gods in this world, as they fought, and died, against the initial rise of the Infernals. There is a mysticism about the whole thing. You want to know more about the world, but at the same time you do not want to leave the side of the Vagrant as you are willing him forward to reach his goal.
And that leads nicely on to the other major success of this book. The Vagrant himself. When you read that the main protagonist of the story is a mute and that you are not going to be seeing the world from behind his eyes, the instinctive worry is that his character will falter and fall at the first hurdle. And for many authors this would have been the case. But not for Newman, who manages to weave an aura of humanity around this stoic hero, and he does this with unmatched subtlety. His character is not built by his speech, which can often be misleading and subjective, or constant internal soliloquies. No, what we get instead is a man defined by subtle mannerisms and valiant acts. We form an opinion based on those who follow him and how he strives to protect them against all odds, when every fibre of his being should tell him to take the easy route. But we also see his flawed humanity. The Vagrant is a Man who knows when a battle is destined to fail, and he will avoid that battle in order to preserve the life of the baby perpetually by his side. He will walk by as innocent people are slaughtered, often brutally, but the burden of such horror is evident in his faltered steps and downcast eyes. Very rarely I find myself so emotionally tethered to a character and my heart sank every time he encountered odds that seemed insurmountable, and cursed myself as I willed him to take the supposed cowardly way out; as I yearned for him to run to safety so that he could reach his final goal. But he is also a man exuding redemption, always hoping that his generous acts will invoke the goodness in those he meets. The Vagrant is someone capable of making the hard decisions, ones that will often wrench your heart from your chest, but not someone who is able to comfortably live with them.
It is also in the development of supporting characters where Newman’s true skill as a writer become ever more so apparent. He is able to elicit emotion in characters you initially thought deserved none, and he does this with beautiful efficiency. Brutish characters are revealed somewhat childlike in their interactions, their existence becoming tragic as they cling to the only kindness they have ever been shown. Husks, twisted and hollowed by the Usurper, evolve in to individuals as they wrestle their independence away from the desperate grasps of their master. Every creature, every person, and seemingly even every object, has that extra dimension that refuses to release your undivided attention. Even the seemingly inconsequential and unsubstantial movements of the baby carry purpose; a poke in the ribs here, a giggle there – all of it screams of a humanity and realism that is miraculous in a fantasy world created from scratch, and we witness how the small acts help define other characters.
The world created here is so full of despair and oppression, so much so that you would be forgiven for thinking that there would be no chance for any form of humour. If you thought this then you would be wrong. With the simple inclusion of a goat, a very successful element of comedy is added. With the exception of the perpetual vexation of this goat there is nothing abnormal about her. She is simply a goat. She does not speak. She does not do anything outstanding or miraculous. She is just angry and flippant. If the goat does not want to go where the Vagrant wants her to go then she won’t, much to the Vagrants resignation. If there is a territorial bird squawking viciously at the goat, then she will head butt it – several times. And often we will see this from the goat’s perspective. The concepts in these sections are suitably simple so you believe they are the meanderings of a simple animal, but at no point does the quality of writing suffer. I honestly did not think, when I picked up this book, that I would be reading small sections of it from the perspective of a goat. But I can tell you in all honesty that I am glad that I could.
There is genuinely very little than I can criticise about this book; it is concise, efficient, beautifully written, emotional, thought-provoking, and so much more. If I was to pick something out, one thing that would stop me from giving it full marks, it would be that the ending is a bit tapered. The story is about the realistic plight of a man journeying through a distressing world. The ending carries that addled tone without becoming spectacular. Certain things happen with an almost-nonchalance when a little part of you is hoping for a grand finale, but in essence that works perfectly with what the story is about. The tale is about understatement and that is what the ending carries. If it was anything else other than that then it would grate against the tone set out before it, but still, part of me hoped for just a little more.
This is a fantastic novel masterfully written by someone who excels in his craft. Newman has created a dark world with intricate characters who remain interesting until the very end. Even with an ending that is a touch understated, I would still class this as one of the best fantasy novels of the modern era and I cannot wait for it to finally get the acclaim that it deserves. With the sequel, The Malice, released this year, I am eager to find myself once again engrossed in Newman’s world.