The cover copy sells Peter Newman’s fantasy debut The Vagrant as Mad Max meets the Gunslinger. Indeed, the world that our nameless, titular hero travels through is filled with demonic hoards and the callous remnants of humanity, and the scarred landscape recalls both post-apocalyptic and survival narratives. It’s a hardscrabble place, full of uncertainty, and death, and a yawning absence of saviors.
The setting is a result of an earlier, failed battle to ward off the Breach of the world, attempted by Gamma of The Seven eight years before. That defeat left society unprepared to face a world tainted by a poison that turns humans into monsters and cobbled together human parts, dead or alive, into walking atrocities. These hideous creatures roam free, destroying lives and cities, and begin their slow construction of a horrific civilization of their own, with humans as building material. As the story opens, however, even this invading force is beginning to struggle. Although they infected the world successfully, they’re being themselves assailed by humanity’s great gift—free will—which has sparked an internal civil war within the constructed bodies.
We meet the Vagrant as he flees into open land, carrying a sword and a baby. He doesn’t speak, and initially remains detached, save for his care and obvious concern for the baby. Newman handles his taciturn protagonist skillfully, with narration that keeps the Vagrant at a distance and a plot that offers him travel companions, helpers, shopkeepers, and betrayers who do enough talking for everyone, and allow him to react in ways that reveal his true nature. The people the Vagrant meets paint a picture of a society that’s come to terms with the invaders and carved out a new way to live, through service, or rebellion, or simple acceptance of the new order. The Vagrant’s goal is to return the sword he carries—a powerful blade, deadly to the monsters that walk the world—to the remnants of The Seven. Those that escaped the Breach give chase, eager to destroy it and him, while they also fight for dominance among themselves.
As the Vagrant moves toward his goal of the Shining City in the north, he meets and effectively adopts a mismatched crew. A surly, intractable goat grudgingly keeps the baby fed. A rebel-turned-partner known as Harm offers companionship and advice. His most surprising companion is a monster made from the very tainted forces that chase him and his sword. He adopts each carelessly, almost dismissively, until their friendship and trust slowly thaw him.
Over and over, the Vagrant encounters injustices he can’t seem to let lie. He saves people, even when it doesn’t benefit him; he helps, even when hope of success is slim; and he’s prone to small kindnesses. Slowly, through his silent actions, a series of flashbacks, and his interactions with his companions, we learn who he was, and why he became this silent man who travels so desperately northward. He is part of the mystery of this story: learning his motivations, understanding his goals, and putting his pieces back together with the help of a tiny, adorable baby and a disparate group of friends. It’s a survival story told on the hard edges of a world gone sour, but it’s also a story about learning to heal.
Although The Vagrant is a story about a poisoned secondary world, teeming with monsters, and demons, and misery for the people left in it, at its core, it is about kindness and family. This is a dark story, but not only darkness—it is a story about how good we can be to each other, even when everything is bleak, when we choose kindness over apathy. It can be grim and dark; it’s violent, full of evil, hard choices. But it also reminds us to hold dear the distinctive, complicated, and messy connections between us. The softness and flexibility of love matters more than ever in a world where humanity is struggling to endure.
The Vagrant is available May 10.