The debut novel from Peter Newman, The Vagrant is a genre-straddling, expectation-defying book that represents both an assured debut and an impressive willingness (from author and publisher) to take risks. Set in a world that’s equal parts dystopia, fantasy and science fiction, where living swords and ephemeral demons coexist with futuristic firearms and vast sky-ships, it follows the titular Vagrant as he journeys through lands long corrupted by a conquering foe bearing a sentient sword and incongruously caring for a baby. Never speaking, communicating through body language alone, he stubbornly makes his way ever northwards in search of home, and safety.
There’s a whole raft of interesting stylistic choices here, from the gradual drip-feed of history and context that slowly builds up the depth of the world, to the Vagrant’s expressive silence and a brisk, efficient style of writing that’s so out of keeping with the sci-fi/fantasy norm. No words are wasted, as happenings which might take pages or even chapters in other books are stripped down to their bare bones. Fights are reduced to broad brush strokes, the focus always on what’s at stake rather than the precise details of what’s happening, and there’s always a sense of forward motion, of Newman not wanting to get bogged down in minutiae. What’s impressive is how he still manages to build up a vivid, evocative picture of this strange world, filled with horrors and wonders at every turn.
As for the Vagrant’s silence, every so often it feels a touch contrived but for the most part it’s absolutely natural, in keeping with the slow reveal of his past and the role he’s playing in the unfolding events. As he gathers others to his side their dialogue fills the gaps he leaves, and Newman cleverly injects variety by occasionally turning his gaze from the Vagrant to the baby and even a belligerent, cantankerous goat (yep, a goat), the pair of whom provide humour to leaven the darkness. Other characters come and go, often abruptly and violently, as befits the bleak world in which they live, but despite the brisk pace of writing they’re all impressively well drawn – not least the gruesome, disgusting monstrosities propagated by the demonic invaders.
Not everyone is going to get on with the deliberately, wilfully strange stylings here, but for those who enjoy the Iain M. Banks-esque world building and the silent hero there’s a lot to appreciate. There’s an incredible level of depth to the world that Newman has created here, drawing in influences from all over to create something genuinely fresh and new, but crucially that’s wedded to engaging characters and a powerful story. The presence of the baby might give it away, but beneath the monsters and the darkness this is a story about hope and about love. It’s a hugely impressive novel, especially for a debut, and an introduction to a bright new talent.