Harper Voyager U.K. (Apr, 2015), Cover by Jamie Jones
Quests are ubiquitous in all cultures. Joseph Campbell carefully explained the hows and whys of every major story being a quest, a hero’s journey in some form or the other. Peter Newman’s The Vagrant (2015) is another quest narrative and follows the format of Campbell’s monomyth to a t. It’s typical in its fundamentals, yet slightly atypical in its trimmings compared to what the majority of the fantasy genre market offers.
Newman’s Vagrant nominally resembles two other characters who are mythopoeic in their own right: King’s Roland Deschain and Gemmell’s Jon Shannow. Like them, the Vagrant appears to be the ‘last’ of his kind as he traverses a land devastated by a rift in reality and inhabited by otherworldly, conscious entities. Made up of fey energies, they usurp living (or once living) matter to give themselves grotesque expression. The land itself is tainted, biomes destroyed and genes mutated. The resulting turmoil and destruction infuses communities with a lawless climate, where power structures are fluid and subject to precipitous and violent change.
Against this ‘demonic’ backdrop, I find that the Vagrant’s quest parallels that of Ogami Ittō and his son, Diagoro. Like their journey on meifumadō, the Vagrant’s journey is its own kind of Hell, but Newman presents a far more literal one than what Koike conceived. Ittō and his son are on a single-minded, spiritual path where the axiom “when you meet the Buddha, kill him” is adhered to in the strictest and most efficient sense, devoid of any sentimentality. Psychological demons and ethical subtleties impede their violent journey. The Vagrant and his ward are also beset by demons on their path, but they are made manifest and directly susceptible to his sword when met.
The rift in The Vagrant allows Newman to insert a pleasingly weird sensibility into an otherwise standard quest narrative. The protagonist conforms to the fundamental mold of farmboy-turned-warrior with the attendant parochial idealism and lack of worldly discernment that afflicts most such characters. Thankfully, Newman allays this affliction given the grim circumstances. His journey follows the classic format, acquiring companions who feel compelled to accompany and aid him through their own impetuses. Still, I find there are features marking the journey as noteworthy. The satellite characters being one such example. The Vagrant is a fairly simple figure in and of himself, given even his expanded background. However, his wordless communication allows him to function as a signpost that helps to articulate the personalities, eccentricities and hopes of other characters. He presents others with minimal and perhaps ambiguous replies. How they respond to this imparts different hues on their mind-set than if they might reply to clear, spoken messages. Their needs and dreams are brought into sharper focus through this interaction, and they undergo change whilst the Vagrant remains static, a beacon for the relief they crave.
Interestingly, the Vagrant also manages to act as an aid to the resolution of stories for certain other characters, just like Ogami Ittō and Diagoro. This was a skilful feature of storytelling by Koike that I’ve always admired, and to find brief elements of it here feels strangely nostalgic.
The dual nature of the quest narrative is another noteworthy feature. The Vagrant’s quest is mirrored by that of his pursuer, intent on preventing his quarry’s mission. The Vagrant’s essential motives and goals are clear-cut, and the journey only reinforces his preconceptions and duty. The pursuer’s motive, whilst initially as straightforward as the Vagrant’s, undergoes changes and introduces subtle, contradictory elements. This agent’s parallel quest is very sympathetic and even more fascinating for its surreal glimpses into the nature of the plight that afflicts the land.
The highlight of the novel, though, is Newman’s world-building. Right from the start, little hints are sporadically dropped to slowly build up a picture of devastated communities and landscapes with glimmerings of what might have once been a technologically advanced society. Unlike most typical, genre fantasy, The Vagrant presents the world similar to how a science fiction novel is wont to do: in scattered tidbits, by making the reader work at figuring things out. Whether the world presented is a secondary reality or a very far future scenario in our primary one will keep you guessing throughout.
This world-building is also accomplished through the excellent, surreal and weird imagery that Newman concocts. This is where his use of present tense really shines. That said, I also find his writing makes for problematic reading at times. The staccato-like, short sentences of often uniform length can interrupt flow. They sometimes give the impression of a notion not fully articulated and then condensed into two or three adjectives as an afterthought. Plainly so when a few such lines follow in quick succession, and this is especially noticeable during the earlier sections of the novel. Newman is able to ameliorate this effect as the novel progresses, but this feature of his writing subsists more-or-less throughout the work.
At the same time, this terse, present tense feature with its emphasis on the immediacy of the moment highlights other aspects that are some of the most memorable in the novel. This is particularly true with regard to the Vagrant’s tiny charge and her perpetually disgruntled source of nourishment. The Vagrant’s interaction with the baby does more to draw out his character than anything else (that endearing eyebrow battle), and the curmudgeon-like attitude of the goat inserts light-hearted and comedic elements when least expected. Seriously, the goat is a riot. Her antics offer a memorable, much-needed relief against a grim background peopled with characters demanding sympathy. One such is the tainted, child-like Hammer, whose maimed and dangerously twisted innocence cannot help but evoke melancholy.
I went into The Vagrant expecting it to be a one-off, and this was a mistake. There is no real resolution to the plot and newer questions and antagonists are introduced by the end. Even so, the close of the novel feels like an appropriate intermission before the next arc can begin. Looking back, I now find that satisfactory, but the resolution of one particular thread felt rather anticlimactic. Still, the novel’s particular apocalyptic conceit, world-building and surreal imagery pull you in from the start. Hopefully, Newman can dial down his affectation for some of those truncated sentences in his follow-up. Otherwise, he’s put out a very good science-fantasy début, and I look forward to the sequel.
© 2015 Nirvan Jain
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