“Cut through the noise” is the latest metaphor I’ve heard describing authors and publishers’ attempts to get sales in this age of market saturation. And while there is no magic formula, there are certainly a few tried and tested techniques that seem reasonable: prose appropriate to the story being told, good pacing that includes high and lows at expected and (properly) unexpected plot moments, and characters we can relate to. Sharply defined or imaginative settings also help, but are not the be-all end-all. How then does Peter Newman’s debut novel The Vagrant (2015) cut through the noise—ear-splitting uproar—of fantasy on the market today?
A breach has appeared in the Earth, and demonic creatures have emerged, wreaking havoc upon the land and people who live in the future world. Humanity sent their bravest and strongest to fight, including the singing sword Malice, but were defeated. Now the land lies in ruins. People fight for scraps of food, bodies are taken over by the demons, . But through the cratered landscape walks a silent man, the Vagrant. A child carried in the crook of his arm and goat tapping along behind, he is on a mission that no know of save him. As the demonic horde learns of his journey, they attack with all their force. (How was that for cover copy? Does it help if you imagine it being read by the movie trailer narrator?)
Epic backstory? Check. Mysterious hero? Check. Numinous sword? Check. Dystopian wasteland overrun with hordes of baddies to slaughter with said numinous sword? Check. Numerous scenes to extoll the glory of slaughtering baddies in high style? Check? Yes, The Vagrant is very much a marketable work of fantasy. But actually, it is science fantasy—an extremely risky motif. In sticking to the visual side of the motif, Newman avoids a lot of the pitfalls, however. Future (magic?) technology exist alongside hellish demons, but that there is no system or process explained underlying it all, allowing aspects to simultaneously exist without hurting the story’s credibility. Given that character development and theme take back seats to action and plotting, the novel comes across more as a graphic novel, which is where science fantasy might have the strongest chance of success, not to mention all the check boxes of current-market fiction checked.
But that The Vagrant is missing character development or theme (beyond that which is coincidental to plot) is where the novel struggles. It’s not a problem that the Vagrant never speaks; it’s possible for authors to convey characters’ humanity in actions and behavior. It is, however, an issue that the reader never knows the Vagrant’s backstory nor his motivation for his journey with the baby. As a result, the plot just shifts from scene to scene, with minimal substance linking them. The novel is more a string of events than a concatenation that amounts to something of meaning upon the conclusion. In order to limit the predictability of this string of events (“Haven’t had an action scene in a while…”), it would have been much better for this novel to be a novella. The world would not lose anything, and character presentation would feel stronger given the quality over quantity.
And the elephant standing in the room is: are readers given enough to relate to the Vagrant—to feel as though they understand his situation and empathize on his journey? To some degree, yes. But it’s a minor degree. A sense of the man and his purpose is built over the course of the novel, but that so much of the plot is wrapped up in comic book action, it’s not always easy to feel the human beneath. I notice in the sequel novel, The Malice, the Vagrant is replaced as the main character, which would seem almost necessary given that Newman takes the character to its max, and perhaps too far.
So, does The Vagrant stand out on the market? To some degree. Newman delivers an action-packed novel that will appeal to fans of graphic novels. The scenes are described in very visual style, action and pacing are fast, the backstory is properly epic, and there is enough light-hearted moments to buoy the story through the slog of killing demons. But there is little of substance or depth to the story or characters to give the novel real staying power, which is, I would argue, the ultimate argument of cutting through the noise…