The Vagrant by Peter Newman
It’s been a while since I’ve had a story stomp on my heart every chapter, but this story will make you feel miserable and weirdly hopeful the entire time. I dare you not to feel for these characters, and the best part is they’re all slightly strange characters for a dystopian sword and sorcery story. (Yes, this is definitely a ‘dystopian sword and sorcery’ even though that feels like a strange genre. The sword and sorcery elements are obvious and never played coyly, and this story reminded me a lot of China Mieville’s New Crobuzon series so powerfully that if you like that series, you’ve got to give this one a try.) The title character (the Vagrant) is an especially sad twist on The Man With No Name trope, and you get the impression early on that he has no idea what he’s doing. Yet, he’s the most competent human/infernal oddity in this entire series. Basically, this world is screwed. Oh, and he’s hauling around a baby and a magic sword, and you don’t know how he got either of them until the end. Harm as the side-kick is probably the closest thing to a ‘standard’ fantasy character, and his personal quest not to be a shit person out of default (because this world is REALLY shitty) is moving, too. I even felt pity for blobs of infernal demon flesh. That’s an impressive feat of storytelling right there. Every twist in this story was really gripping, and while there are many depressing moments, there’s definitely one that made me stop reading because I couldn’t handle my emotions. (If you read this, you will KNOW what it is.) In a story where it’s easy to feel for so many characters in such a crap-sack world, it’s (weirdly) the angels (the seven) that are the least likable characters. This, too, is a feat of story-telling, even if it’s a subtle one.
The world building is a new take on the war between angels and demons. The flashbacks are interspersed with the main plot and told in an omnipresent tone, which I liked. First, eight years ago, we see how the Usurper is made. Then, we see how the Usurper fucked up everyone and everything in spectacular fashion. (It’s also not-so-subtly-implied later in the novel that the Empire of the Winged Eye and The Seven have done shit all to help the people who’ve been caught in this devasting demon invasion. This is why the angels come across as the least sympathetic characters, IMHO. Hell, people turn to a necrotic demon death cult for help because only one of the seven even gave enough of a damn to fight.) The flashbacks help illuminate the present events and serve to make them sadder and more poignant. It was a great way to tell a backstory that would’ve been unnatural for the main characters to tell, and it helped me understand what was going on in the present–it made the story matter.
The understated prose works well, too, and fits with the sparse, barren world the story takes place in. I described this book to my friends as ‘fantasy The Road‘, but the ending was more uplifting, so everyone doesn’t die. There’s also so much snarky dialogue in fantasy stories today and in general that I was impressed to read a book that was so compelling with so little dialogue. Basically, I loved this story and ordered the sequel IMMEDIATELY (although this book can be read as a standalone).
Rating: 5 stars. I squirmed uncomfortably through this entire book. Basically, I loved it.