Book Review: The Vagrant – Peter Newman

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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

 

Fashion: Handbags

Yesterday, I bought a new handbag.

Not just any new handbag.

A beautiful handbag, in mint green and pink – soft leather, no less – and equipped both with the standard handle for easy carrying, and a longer strap when over-the-shoulder seems like a better idea. Quite aside from the eye-catching, stunning colours, every stitch is exquisitely crafted, and each pocket placed with absolute perfection. This handbag cannot be discounted as a minor accessory, and is certainly not easily forgettable. It demands attention, justifiably so.

Alternatively: this handbag is a gift that just can’t wait to start giving, and on this momentous occasion I’m the lucky consumer expertly poised to receive.

(Well, maybe not expertly. That’s a bit of a stretch.)

Buying a new handbag probably doesn’t sound remotely impressive, and certainly not exciting. As for “momentous,” well, that’s surely a word that we should be reserving for genuinely fantastic events, such as winning something other than a rather woebegone plant on the raffle, or managing to finish a walk in England without getting rained on. Not, under any circumstances, the purchase of something as profoundly commonplace as a handbag, at least not for anyone remotely sensible.

If any aspect of purchasing a new handbag is momentous (which is of course entirely dubious), it would surely be so in a way that should rightfully only be celebrated privately, among like-minded people, and with some degree of appropriate embarrassment. It may also be necessary for that small, exclusive group to convince themselves that they do remain utterly sensible, irrespective of any handbags that they may or may not have purchased.

But it was, in fact, a momentous occasion, as buying any handbag has the potential to be.

Let me explain.

You see (or I like to think you see, even if you probably don’t, and would rather be spared the hassle), this was in fact an expensive handbag.

No, not one of those.

Well, perhaps a little like one of those.

It wasn’t quite expensive enough to merit a panicked “it was an investment, really,” or even my particular favourite: “You’ll never see another like it!” It was, however, certainly pricey enough that when my bank statement finally drops with painful merriment through my door, I’ll be offered a clear opportunity to reflect on my poor decisions, and maybe even develop buyer’s remorse, should I be so inclined.

(I am, on occasion.)

It was, as I like to think some people, somewhere, for some reason, say: an Expense.

 As such, it can, under those somewhat dubious circumstances, be considered to be a luxury item, and my purchase of it at least some indication that I have Made It, whatever “it” is, and whatever “making it” happens to involve. This is, in simpler – and slightly less ridiculous – terms, an achievement. By purchasing an item that cannot be considered to be a necessity – although it was entirely necessary to me – I have clearly reached a previously elusive point of independence.

Additionally, as a buyer of handbags, as a pose to strange little ornaments or fridge magnets, I have been elevated to a group of people characterised by their interest and commitment to stylishness and fashion. A door has been opened; a new way to live revealed, and I stand poised on the threshold, finally in possession of the keys to the castle.

This is important for many reasons, which will undoubtedly differ in each situation. The purchase of the first luxury handbag is ultimately a profoundly private experience, even if the mechanics happen publicly, defined by its considerable uniqueness. For me, it was the sense of achievement, the tangible proof that I had crossed some invisible boundary into a lifestyle previously beyond my reach that was the most important aspect (after the beauty of the handbag itself, of course). It heightened my self-esteem, proved my abilities, and gave me something to focus on for the future.

(Do I sound sensible yet?)

Honestly, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it, because you might just be surprised. (At the very least, you’ll own a new handbag, which in my experienced estimation is never a bad thing.)

Yesterday, I walked into a shop to buy a new handbag.

When I left the shop, handbag on my arm, everything had changed. The world, in which handbags that I could suddenly afford were made and bought, seemed a brighter place, and my position in it vastly improved and on all accounts really rather positive. Believing in myself no longer seemed so difficult, and I had clear proof that doing such wasn’t entirely unfounded.

Do not underestimate the power of the handbag.

It didn’t matter whether I had one handbag or twenty lying in wait to leap onto my arm, and it didn’t matter whether I spent more or less than average. The point was that I had been able to afford a luxury item, entirely on the back of my own efforts. I had shown that I could achieve in my chosen field, and that I was capable not only of achieving, but also of succeeding.

That is why buying my new handbag was a momentous occasion – it marked an important stage of my life.

Buying a luxury item isn’t a solution, and it can easily make the buyer feel worse, not better. But it is a valid option, and under the right circumstances, it can have the desired effect.

Today, I’ll probably buy teabags. I won’t emerge a better, changed person from the experience, transformed and reinforced by fresh belief in myself and in my abilities, but at least I’ll have tea.

~

In the blogger’s spare time, she is:

Reading: Shadow Warrior by Chris Bunch

Watching: AMC’s Preacher

Listening to: The FoolRyn Weaver