There’s a lyric that’s been rattling around my mind ever since I started reading The Vagrant. It’s from ‘Everybody Knows’ by Leonard Cohen but I first encountered it in the cover version Concrete Blonde did for Pump Up The Volume. The line is this:
Everybody knows that the war is over,
Everybody knows that the good guys lost
That idea is one of the foundation stones of The Vagrant. The other is whether or not that matters.
The Vagrant follows its unnamed lead through a landscape broken apart by an otherworldly incursion. The Breach is never explicitly stated as being to Hell, but the creatures that emerge from it are certainly demonic. This is the first thing that impresses you, as Pete manages to simultaneously honour the traditional fictional idea of demons while putting multiple new twists on them. The first, and essentially only, disastrous engagement in the war is returned to again and again as we see first what the humans saw and then what the demons surging forth into their world experienced. They are deeply disturbing, infinitely subtle and horrifically broken creatures that never evince sympathy but do become surprisingly understandable. They have petty rivalries and jealousies, just as we do. They fear just as we do. They pay as heavy a price for the war as humanity, it’s just one many of the human characters aren’t equipped to see. There’s never any moral ambiguity to the demons themselves, but there shouldn’t be. At no point does any character act on knowledge of the world they shouldn’t have and every time they encounter the demons, they react with a complex web of horror, fear and rage. It’s a fascinating, unusual and extremely plausible reaction to the horrific and it’s the second thing that impresses you.
The third is the persistent, quiet tragedy of the Tainted. The world and everything in it is curdled by the presence of the demons in a way that’s as untidy as it is consistent. Chaos is constant where they pass and the mutated animals, people and environment that The Vagrant encounters feel both alien and familiar, often at the same time. There’s a Mad Max-like sense of recent desolation to many scenes and that’s mixed with the laudable, awful tendency humans have to survive almost anything. Life goes on, after the war. It’s shorter and more brutal but it does go on and for some people that’s more than they could have hoped for.
The Vagrant is the exception that proves the rule. The line in the sand, simultaneously a moral constant and a constantly moving, hunted figure, he never speaks. His job is simple; guard an important sword and a much more important life. The reasons for both unfold as the book does and, just as the book is based on the twin principles mentioned above, the Vagrant is defined by the sword and the baby. He is the point at which the book has to rise or it will fall, a knight without an order, a man without a voice. Done wrong, he would be the epitome of everything that’s wrong with po-faced fantasy. Done right, as he is here, The Vagrant is a very different kind of hero. Flawed, perpetually terrified and slowly, surely opening up to those around him. He is, through very little fault of his own, the last man standing and whether or not that’s something he deserves is a big part of his arc through the book. Less a reluctant hero, more one who’s not sure he’s needed or worthy of the role, he’s gentle, relentless, terrifying, funny and, always, painfully fair. The sword and the child, and the man balanced between them. At times precariously but always balanced.
Pete’s world building is extraordinarily good, trusting you to fill in the gaps but circling back and answering all the questions you have in due time. A huge part of that is the Sword, a weapon of incomparable, feral power. In the hands of a lesser character, and author, the Sword would be the sledgehammer that broke the plot into manageable chunks. In the hands of The Vagrant, and his creator, the sword is both a compass and companion, another terrified veteran, leaning on The Vagrant as much as he is on it.
The Child, and later characters like Harm and The Hammer, keep The Vagrant grounded. This is a broken, corrupted world but it’s also still one filled with life and Pete throws continual small victories at his characters. The relationship between The Vagrant and the child he protects is completely grounded and realistic and at the same time desperately sweet. He loves not just what she represents, but her. She loves him. Nothing else matters. It’s odd praise to say a baby has one of the best lines in the book but she really does. The emotional impact of it is staggering and the scene itself is one of the best in the book. You’ll know it when you see it.
Harm, the Hammer and the Vagrant’s other companions all help define him and define themselves against him. They, especially Harm and The Hammer, see The Vagrant not as the last man standing but the first sign of a new life. Something quieter, harder and better than what they have. Their arcs are emotionally charged with a combination of hideous violence and quiet bravery and their journeys are just as important, and emotionally charged, as The Vagrant’s own. No one has it easy in this book but everyone finds a moment where they realize what’s at stake, and find, to their surprise, how brave they are. No one in this book is a hero, but everyone, when the time comes, is heroic enough.
The Vagrant is, in the end, a story about a war we lost and what we do next. For each of the characters, the answer is different but, for each of the characters, the question is defining. That’s the last, and most impressive, thing you’ll find about the book. Pete has simultaneously managed to produce a story about an epic, world crushing conflict and kept that story tethered to the smallest, most important parts of it; the people. The war is over. There are no more good guys, precious few villains. Everybody knows what happened but very few know what should happen next. Except The Vagrant. Follow him.