Peter Newman did not make THE VAGRANT an easy book to write.
His protagonist, the centerpiece of his story, does not speak. Through the majority of the book, his mission and inspiration are unclear as he traverses a desolate post-apocalyptic world where demons rule humanity and those few humans who survive are plagued by horrific mutations. Carrying only a baby and a sword, the Vagrant slowly makes his way toward an unidentified goal, meeting a slew of desperate survivors along the way.
Throughout the early portion of the book, it is clear that the Vagrant is on the run, but it isn’t clear what he’s running toward (or exactly what he’s running from). Without much in the way of answers, I spent the first half of the book reading primarily to find the answers the book posed – who was the Vagrant? What was he running from? How did the world get this way? What is the goal of the Vagrant’s desperate quest?
Slowly and expertly, Newman answers each of these questions, partly through the main plotline, but primarily through a series of flashbacks that answer our questions regarding the arrival of the demons and the Vagrant’s personal backstory.
Without much insight into the Vagrant’s perspective, the novel instead relies upon a steady succession of supporting characters. One of the most effective ways Newman uses of showing the bleakness of the world comes through our interactions with these supporting characters. For some, their weary desperation inspires betrayal or poor decisions. Others rise above their fears, and find inspiration in the silent determination of the Vagrant.
In many ways, supporting characters are the primary joy of the novel’s second half. Harmless, commonly known as Harm, serves as a hopeful light in a world that has been decimated by the corruption of demons. The Hammer That Walks and her relationship with both Harmless and the goat slowly and strangely becomes a touching story that unexpectedly pulls at the heartstrings. As the story progresses, it is these characters, more than the Vagrant, who become the heart of the story.
Incredibly enough, a book about a mute, a baby, a coward, and a mutated warrior battling a demon horde becomes a book that is really about relationships and the way we can inspire one another to become our best selves.
As others have noted in their reviews, THE VAGRANT feels similar in many ways to Stephen King’s Gunslinger series, with a touch of Lovecraft thrown in for good measure. If you liked the Gunslinger books, there’s a very good chance you will enjoy THE VAGRANT as well. Newman’s book is faster-paced, with more action and answers that, while delayed, indeed come quicker than in King’s Gunslinger series.
I read much of this novel with my 1-month old daughter in my lap, so perhaps the whole story, and especially the scenes with the baby, hit me harder than they usually would. Somehow, I feel like this is a novel I would have loved regardless. It’s grim but hopeful, blending tragedy and achievement in equal measure.
Peter Newman did not make THE VAGRANT an easy book to write. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.