Peter Newman is not one to shy away from a challenge. His debut novel, The Vagrant (published by Voyager on 23 April 2015) has three main characters: a mute (the titular vagrant), an infant, and a goat.
What follows is a masterclass in showing, not telling. Newman’s background in drama (according to his author bio …) really shows in the superb descriptions of non-verbal communication. Gestures and facial expressions are written with a cinematic eye, and these help to propel the story forward with wit, energy and touching moments of pathos.
The plot follows the titular Vagrant as he travels through a post-apocalyptic world, seeking to deliver a baby and a magic sword to the rulers of the Shining City, far to the north: the one part of Newman’s world that appears to have escaped the taint of demons since an invasion that left the armed forces of the Shining City shattered. Its elite troops, the Seraph Knights, and one of the city’s seven rulers were killed or warped by the invading demons eight years previously.
When I met Newman at SRFC at the end of March (he did a short reading and Q&A from the book, as well as signing a copy for me, with doodles) he listed China Mieville as among his influences, and those influences are clear in the novel’s landscape populated by fantastic and warped creatures. But there’s also a touch of VanderMeer in there, I think. I was reminded of Veniss Underground, with its motifs of body modification, poverty and slavery in a post-industrial world.
Newman’s talent really shows in how that story is told. What could become little more than an extended chase sequence, interrupted with the odd sword fight and side mission, is a thing of joyous subtlety. The Vagrant makes choices about how and when to intervene, often against the urging of his magic sword or his companions. The people he meets and interacts with are often left changed as a result of their interactions with him. We see this most in the character of Harm (the companion who stays longest with the Vagrant). Over the course of his journey with the Vagrant he gains hope that there might be a different way of living. Less selfish, more compassionate and based on rules of justice and fairness, in a deliberate rejection of both the selfish brutality of the demons and the stagnant hierarchies of the Shining City.
But the stand out character for me in this novel is the goat. Psychotic, violent and deliciously contrary in the way that only a goat can be, she is on her own Hero’s Journey. She escapes from servitude and captivity and battles adversaries (including territorial geese) before finally achieving her own paradise.
GoodReads rating: 4*