Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Vagrant - Peter Newman

The Vagrant is Peter Newman’s debut. Amongst other things, it’s a journey novel, following the titular character as he attempts to cross a hostile territory, crawling with demons and broken men, in an effort to get several items of great importance out of danger. It’s a novel filled with interesting emotional moments, with difficult choices. It’s also one with several swordfights, stern chases, high stakes combat. It’s about what breaks people apart, what binds them together, and whether people can change. There’s some flaws in there, but the narrative as a whole hangs together beautifully.

The setting, a shattered land under the boot of a strange horde of twisted creatures, exudes a kind of crawling horror. As the protagonist moves across the land, the domains of various monstrosities are uncovered – each a malign merger of the demonic with the everyday. In one, a twisted essence acts as guard-dog for a town of broken workers, each willing to sell out the rest for scraps. In another, détente is observed between two warring creatures, giving it the feel of a warped Casablanca, where servants of the creatures are given new limbs or health in return for their service, and where the rebellious or the unwary are broken down for their component parts. Each has something distinct about it, something which feeds into the welling sense of horror that Newman is giving to the reader. The strange feeling of life writhing around these blasted wastelands is skilfully evoked, and I, for one, was left marvellously unsettled.

Voice is something that gets spoken about with characters a great deal. The way that they feel, they way they present themselves to the reader, is often couched this way. Newman has done something different, giving us a protagonist who is effectively mute. Rather than immerse us in the thoughts of our protagonist, making us one with the Vagrant, the reader, like the supporting cast, serves as a mirror. They and we reflect something of ourselves back onto this man, a cipher whose actions have no choice but to speak louder than his non-existent words. Instead the protagonist is defined by those actions, and by the way others react to him. And yet, the text doesn’t suffer for this. It feels like it comes from the same tradition as the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns, or the grim, reluctant heroes of the vintage paperbacks of the same genre.  Whilst the Vagrant does not speak, he does subtly emote, and those around him do a lot of the heavy lifting for the reader in this regard.  It’s an impressive feat of authorial magic that the protagonist feels well realised, the relationships both genuine and human, despite all the dialogue being one way.

The supporting cast have to carry their weight here, in order for the narrative to work, and Newman doesn’t disappoint. There’s  shifty market traders. Villains with a mindset and reference points so far outside of our experience as to be presented as alien. Men seeking redemption for past sins – or at least pretending to. And there’s a baby, and a goat. The former serves as a rallying point, as a central emotional focus for the Vagrant – and allows for a degree of character growth across the board. The goat…well, I feel like the goat’s largely there to provide opportunities for a lighter tone, but it does this very well, sparks of humour in a darker landscape.

At the same time, there are sections in the text that are set in the past, before cataclysm befell the setting, and these provide an excellent counterpoint to the shattered wastes the reader encounters in the mainline narrative. There’s a sense of struggle and change here. There’s also an opportunity to see the Vagrant as a younger man, to see the events which shaped him, that forced him onto his journey with a sword, a baby, and a goat.

The main plot rattles along nicely. The Vagrant moves from town to town, from crisis to crisis, finding companions and adversaries in equal measure, struggling to return the sword, the baby, and, if possible, the goat, to whatever passes for non-demonic civilisation. The pacing is spot on, giving moments of character discovery, wrapped in a growing understanding of the setting, broken by points of crisis and apotheosis. It’s not an elaborate story, but one which settles into a comfortable rhythm, reminiscent of True Grit, the reader following in the Vagrant’s footsteps. The story is the journey, and the journey is the story – and it’s well represented and compellingly done.

In the end, The Vagrant is an excellent, highly original piece of work. It has an interesting setting, a set of intriguing characters, who feel very much alive, and a plot which will keep you turning the pages. Absolutely worth reading.

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