Sometimes I feel like a bit of a broken record, particularly when I say things such as “This book is really hard to describe”. However, I can’t recall a book that was more difficult to peg down than The Vagrant was.
The novel is a quest-centric storyline, and one that is presented in a format that seems to be becoming more and more prominent – a main story, with interjecting flashbacks. In the case of this book, the flashbacks begin at a time in the past, and slowly count forward as they are placed in the book, unveiling bits of history and past to the reader. The Vagrant features a mysterious and, more importantly, mute, protagonist, along with a baby, a goat, a sentient sword, and a companion in desperate need of a friend. Sound confusing? It is.
The Vagrant, along with being voiceless, is also nameless. He is a Saraph Knight, a status which is only sparingly explained throughout the story, even with the flashbacks providing bits and pieces as you go. His magical relic of a sword must be delivered to the Shining City, in order to defeat ye olde overwhelming evil, the demonic horde that has taken over the world. The aforementioned horde has destroyed and shaped the world in many ways, leaving a damaged and scared populace, destroyed landscape, and the omnipresent taint. The worldbuilding is interesting – kind of a future post-apoc, with aspects of fantasy, sci fi and dystopian novels. I’ve seen other reviewers call it “Borderlands meets Fallout”, and I found that to be true.
Unfortunately, the video game comparisons don’t quite stop there. I noted in my book updates as I read that I felt that there were several “video game quest” moments. The entire arching story felt a bit like a video game – go on a quest with very little initial background, get distracted by various side-missions on the way as you discover the background, etc. There were multiple times where the protagonists met someone, who immediately went into a video-game esque “Ok well, I’ll help you, but FIRST, you must complete this task for me!” These tasks included missions even – I almost felt like some were similar to the quests I’ve been completing in Fallout 4. Oddly enough, that was a bit of a turnoff for me – it felt a bit cheap, and made the story seem a bit unrealistic. Peter Newman is also a video game lore writer, so I can understand a bit of this leaking into his story, but for me, it was a glaring piece of writing faux pas.
The writing and prose itself are a mixed bag – a lot of the book is really nicely written. Peter seems to understand human emotion very well, and writes it with a lot of skill. His worldbuilding style was certainly the “slow unravel” type, but he made it work, and painted a fairly vivid picture with an economy of words. There were times, especially towards the beginning, where it felt a bit over-written, and had feelings of a pulpy 1980s adventure fantasy. Overly dramatic descriptions of a lot of things, the overwhelming and generic feel of the evil, and some very common tropes of 80s fantasy beat me in the face in the earlier parts. However, it calms down as it goes, and after about the first 25% of the book, the writing is quite good. His dialogue is great, battle scenes are visceral and exciting, emotions are spot on, and the general ebbs and flows of the story are handled well.
I did have a bit of a beef with the pacing – it was breakneck at times, and sluggish at other times, which was odd in a book that is not overly long (roughly 400 pages, which was a good length for it). The story wanders a lot, and some parts did feel like filler (ie the aforementioned side-quests). The flashbacks were handled well, and I enjoyed the way they “counted down” to the present, filling in bits as you got further into the story. I’m personally a fan of the flashback style if it is done well (such as Mark Lawrence handles in the Broken Empire), and I think Peter did quite a good job with it.
The driving force of The Vagrant, however, is it’s characters – which are brilliant. Our mute protagonist does so much with so little – frankly, one of the most interesting characters I’ve ever read, even despite the lack of background info. Newman’s descriptive use of facial expressions, body language, hand gestures, etc is incredibly skillful, and as a reader, I often came to the exact conclusion that the characters in the book came to about his intentions and thoughts, which was very refreshing. That’s not an easy character type to write – you’d think “No dialogue? easy!” Not at all. The side characters are fantastic as well – Vesper, the aforementioned baby, is expressive and fun. Not really a normal baby for a number of reasons, but there are a few moments of ‘babyism’ that anyone who has been around small children could immediately relate to. The goat is a curious addition to the story, but is a wonderful reprieve at times – there are some POV chapters from the goat, which are hilarious and very much capture the essence of what a goat really is. There’s also a tainted monstrous female character who tracks the group down, but is coerced into joining them – the best way I can describe her is as one of the friendly super mutants from the Fallout series.
However, Harm is the one character that I feel drives the story the most. He attaches himself to the mutegoatbaby group, and is the glue that keeps them together. He acts as a surrogate parent to Vesper, taking care of the child and bonding with it, acting as a bit of a guide to The Vagrant. He is one of the main narrators of the story, as the only member of the quad who actually verbally extrapolates ideas. He understands the situations, the people around him, he mollifies and soothes, he acts as translator and communicator. He has a very interesting past as well, which is unfortunately not revealed until the very end, but it’s like a punch in the gut when it finally is explained.
The Vagrant is a lot of things; a volume of good and a volume of not so good. It’s an incredibly ambitious novel, tackling an incredibly interesting world. The writing is generally good, the characters are brilliant, but the pacing and storytelling could have used some reforming. It was dark without being overly gory, profane or vulgar, which is talent in and of itself. I think it deserves to be read by a lot of people – it’s one of those stories that straddles genre lines, and can appeal to people from several sides of the SFF interest spectrum. Newman shows a ton of promise with this book, and could be a very interesting writer to keep an eye on going forward.