Every single review I have read on The Vagrant – and I’ve read a fair few, in the build-up and then the aftermath to my frenzied consumption of the novel – mentions the fact that one of the main characters is a goat. They usually talk at length about this topic, and often in profoundly flowery, descriptive terms. I have to admit, it’s getting a trifle repetitive. Thus, in a rather transparent and totally characteristic attempt to be Different™, I wrote an extremely long review without mentioning the goat once.
I then felt a little guilty, and subsequently revised my tactics.
If someone had told me before I read The Vagrant that I would, on finishing the novel, find myself to be A) unreasonably attached to a goat with an attitude problem and B) quite overcome to discover the sequel to The Vagrant was imminent, I would most likely have laughed, long and hard, coyote-style.
There are no half measures in literature appreciation, but I am an experienced traveller used to these waters.
Goats and children are all very well in theory, but I have found, in my previous reading experiences (she says loftily) that I rarely enjoy it when either children or animals occupy pole position. It reminds me rather too strongly of the books I used to like, and so I would generally prefer them to be kept neatly and appropriately to the well-maintained sidelines, if they are to be included at all.
In The Vagrant, however, they get knee-deep in the action and love every second of it.
But once I had finished The Vagrant, my stance on this matter had changed completely. His characterisation, complex, unassailable, entirely realistic and certainly not without humour, had held me spellbound. It’s engaging, intuitive, and genuinely enjoyable, and Newman does a remarkable job of bringing his world and characters to life.
I quite honestly adored every single line.
Peter Newman’s The Vagrant plays host to an impressive style. Deliberately sparse in some areas – the reader is not, for example, provided with the opportunity to delve into the private thoughts of any of the characters – it is also richly descriptive in others, and rests on a foundation of incredibly strong and furiously detailed world building. Undoubtedly unique in plot, structure and characterisation, The Vagrant therefore has much to commend it, not least of which is Newman’s writing style.
(Pause for breath.)
Granted, the plot is breathtakingly simple. The character of the vagrant is a man who has lost the ability to speak, irrevocably and permanently damaged by what he has endured. Nonetheless, he is a beacon of goodness and strength, though importantly not invulnerability, and has but one purpose: to reach a place named the Shining City, where he might find the one weapon that might turn the tide of the war. He is not without uncertainty, or questions, but he is also steadfast. With him he takes a baby, a pure symbol of innocence in a war-torn world, a goat, and, later, a man named Harm, who is drawn to his presence and never gets around to leaving again.
For all the vagrant’s goodness and gentle humour, the world they live in is far from kind, and his ability to improve it limited at best. Their enemies are far-ranging and powerful, the danger near constant, and his ability to trust even the power of his sword arm is often called into question. There are no easy questions, and certainly no simple answers. As simple as this seems, however, it is crisscrossed with various strands, given a particularly realistic complexity.
They’re a motley, ragtag group, and as such a combination quite common to fantasy novels. It is entirely expected for the hero to be in possession of several locked closets packed with skeletons, and a tragic past is practically required. A diverse team of non-heroes? Well, I’ve certainly heard that before. Off to save the world? Well, of course they are. But Newman’s careful, precise execution of those details is anything but predictable, and never stoops to what is just ‘expected.’ He is the master storyteller, and The Vagrant defies all expectations.
As such, while it may seem to meet the criteria for bog-standard fantasy fare, the exquisite detail with which it has been structured and actualised underlines the fact that it is of a quality that the genre as a whole is often claimed to lack.
The Vagrant is sci-fi/fantasy that is arguably at its best. It redefines conventions, refuses to be shoehorned, constantly poses difficult questions, and most of all brings to life a vision that soars far beyond the mundane without losing sight of what is entirely human. The Vagrant is extraordinarily personal, seated firmly in the human experience, and the detail with which the world is depicted provides stunning context and a rich understanding of the chosen setting.
Unable to gain any firm understanding of what was inside the character’s minds, I initially found it difficult to connect with them. As the novel developed and grew, however, I realised that I didn’t need it. Their personalities were clear, their decisions understandable for a variety of reasons, and, ultimately, the novel isn’t so much sparse as it is concentrated, to the exclusion of the unimportant, extraneous detail. The characters remain in the most significant position, undisturbed by entertaining but mostly unnecessary tangents into air versus land speeds, or yet another predictable variation on ye olde laser gun.
Newman’s characterisation is undoubtedly thorough enough to answer most questions, even without the opportunity to delve further, and his development of their story arcs is flawless. We see each character grow and change, responding and reacting to both internal and external pressures, and we witness improvement and disintegration on all sides. There are heroes and villains, but it is reassuringly not the case that one suffers while the other flourishes.
Lastly, The Vagrant makes explicit reference to wider themes such as morality and diversity, and plays host to a consistent and varied exploration of what humanity can possibly mean when the best practice for surviving the particularly harsh, war-torn world is to be profoundly self-interested.
The Vagrant will undoubtedly appeal to fans of sci-fi/fantasy novels, for it is an especially gifted example, but it shouldn’t be left there. Its good qualities are applicable across the board, and to identify it solely as a ‘good fantasy novel’ would be hopelessly reductive. I didn’t rate it highly out of sentiment, but because I believe it is genuinely fantastic, a compelling, exciting and thought provoking read.
In far less wordy terms: I read it, I loved it, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the next part.
In the blogger’s spare time, she is:
Reading: One False Move by Harlan Coben
Watching: HBO’s Game of Thrones
Listening to: Cheap Thrills by Sia