Monday 18 September 2017

The Vagrant

(August 2017)

I remember this book generating a fair bit of buzz a couple of years back, but it doesn’t really live up to it (or, to be fairer and more accurate, to my memory of it). There are a lot of interesting parts here, but somehow it never quite adds up to more than the sum of them.

The titular Vagrant is a voiceless traveler, shepherding a child and a holy sword across a land blighted by invading ‘infernals’. Along the way he assembles a motley crew of refugees and hangers on, while interspersed flashback chapters tell us how he came to accept these burdens in the first place. In many ways it’s well done: Having a mute main character gives the narration a certain detachment which works very well given the subject matter. The worldbuilding is effective without needing to fill in every last detail of who did what where and to whom. The writing is littered with evocative lines that generally avoid falling into the kind of overblown nonsense that tends to appear in books with hooded men and swords on the cover.

The downside is that there’s really no overarching tension to drive the story as a whole. Individual scenes are tense, for sure, but after a while it becomes clear that the Vagrant’s magic sword renders him effectively unbeatable, shutting off that avenue for drama. It’s also a quest narrative in which the object of the quest is surprisingly ill-defined. Our man has to cross a war-blighted land in order to get a sword back to his leaders, leaders who appear to have very little interest in its whereabouts whatsoever. It’s not clear until very late on why anyone except the Vagrant should care about his journey (literal and figurative) including, unfortunately, the reader. To compound that, the ending is almost the dictionary definition of an anticlimax and the dénouement is extremely weak sauce.

All that being said, this is the first of a trilogy, and if I get the chance to read the sequels without shelling out a fortune I’ll do so happily. The problems are largely structural: The Vagrant is a weak story strongly told, which is the kind of thing that a writer can definitely learn to overcome. Newman clearly has talent at the micro level, and that’s easier to scale up to the macro than the other way around. Usually.

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