I am an unabashed fan of the rōnin story in all its forms, both eastern and western. I saw the works of Akira Kurosawa fairly young, the Man With No Name trilogy collects some of my favorite spaghetti westerns of all time, more recently I’ve gotten into folk stories of the Chinese Youxia. I’ve always found questing knights far more intriguing than purely military tales of medieval Europe. You could even make the argument that many post apocalyptic stories follow similar trends.
When I like something across a variety of genres that wide, my first instinct is to pick it apart on an analytical level and see what makes the entire thing work so well for me. In this case it was fairly easy. I like that the wandering savior story forces writers to use a certain amount of brevity in their work. You only have a short amount of time to introduce a protagonist, make you care about them in spite of their wandering status (usually an indicator that they have betrayed someone or been exiled for a crime sometime earlier), introduce an antagonist with a reason to get into a fight with this nomad, and usually incorporate a bunch of civilians with enough of a background story to engender some kind of empathy for them.
From a reading perspective it’s a neat package, and it frontloads the good stuff; it’s less of a hook and more of a hooked net. From a writing perspective it’s another tool in the toolbox, a story structure that you can break down into its core components and weave into other stories, or riff and subvert endlessly, or just play completely straight and come out with something compelling.
In a well-told wanderer story you don’t have time to spend on a lot of world building, it’s a very personal conflict and a character-driven story. Look at something like Mad Max: Fury Road for a near-perfect example of what I’m talking about. Everything you learn about the world is a visual element and/or explained through the actions and interactions of various characters colliding and bouncing off one another. There is no exposition because there’s no time for it, this guy has just rolled into town and now he needs to save a bunch of people he’s never met before while being pursued by a maniac in a monster truck. It’s the same dynamic that makes Yojimbo and Sanuro so compelling half a century after they were first filmed. It’s why A Fistful Of Dollars still holds up so well.
As you might guess from the heavy emphasis on westerns and samurai here, I am a big fan of the original Magnificent Seven. I went into the remake the other night without much in the way of expectation but it ended up being pretty damn good and exemplifying what I like about the genre. You only have a few lines of dialogue to hook the audience on to each character before the action kicks in. If you’re lucky you might get five whole minutes of a solo scene to establish their personality, fighting style and goals. By imposing these limits the same in 2016 as the original film did in 1960, it actually managed to be pretty damn good in a world of lackluster reboots.
Hell, if I have a complaint about it it’s that they managed to excise a lot of the anti-war messages of both the original and the Seven Samurai. Going back and watching them as an adult made me realize that while yes, they are killer action flicks, they are heavy in blasting you with how awful combat is. You’ve got raiders who only attack villages because they themselves are starving and have no supplies, you’ve got heroes who run up along the cusp of suicidal, and the entire storyline in each is just a commentary on how wasteful and useless it is to perpetrate cycles of violence.
The new one is a little more of a straightforward action flick but it swapped those themes for a little sprinkle of multiculturalism and turned the bad guys into a prosperity gospel preacher with his army of strikebreaker thugs. He believes he’s rich because god wills it and so he has divine permission to do whatever he wants to to people who god has made poor, and his men are called out by the protagonists on multiple occasions as being more used to gunning down unarmed union laborers than anything resembling a fair fight. The only way to stand up against them is to incorporate everything from traditional 19th century army tactics to the guerrilla styles of mountain men, hit and run sniping from a Comanche warrior, Chinese knife fighting and more.
It’s a bit heavy handed but considering how bad this could have been I’d consider it surprisingly enjoyable to watch and something I’d rewatch happily. Maybe not quite as good as some other contemporary westerns like 3:10 To Yuma, True Grit or Django Unchained but better than I would have expected from a reboot. Of particular note, Denzel absolutely slaughtered every scene he was in and I hope he does more westerns in the future. Dude can rock the black hat.
In a similar vein to all this stuff, I just finished reading The Vagrant by Peter Newman. Everything I just talked about up there, with concise worldbuilding and storytelling and frontloaded goodness? More applicable to this than most books I’ve read recently. It’s a travelogue that drags you across most of a continent over 400 pages, touring strange hellscapes, blasted cities, and the most bizarre cast of characters. Flashbacks littered throughout the story talk about how up until 11 years ago, the world lived in harmony and was approaching a utopian state under the watchful eyes of The Seven, a group of divine beings living in a floating silver cube above the Shining City in the heartland of the realm. The realm was guarded by Seraph Knights, a group of paladins bearing singing swords and hunting down any creature bearing the infernal taint, a mutagenic whorl in the natural order of things. 10 years ago a hole was torn in the world that vomited forth not just more of the taint but the creatures it originated from, purebred infernals and their nobility, their hounds, and fragments of their home world. They can only survive here by cloaking themselves in the corpses of native inhabitants, because the laws of reality are like acid on their skin. One of The Seven marches out to meet them in a flying palace backed by thousands of Seraph Knights and the entire force is wiped out and incorporated into the infernal ranks.
Fast forward to the modern day, where a mute, cloaked stranger carries a malicious winged sword in one hand and a sick baby in the other, and he needs to get from the infernal city of New Horizon to the realms of the Shining host. To get there he needs to cross warped deserts, biomechanical nightmare cities like Slake and Wonderland, and face off against not just infernals but the humans who have decided that they’re more worthy of worship than The Seven.
I really loved everything about this book. The prose is florid without being flowery, it shows its worldbuilding through a high-pressure drip, and the raw imaginative power at work is kind of staggering. It’s like Lone Wolf & Cub by way of China Mieville. The naming conventions are so evocative while being vague enough to keep you guessing. The Vagrant is pursued by beings like the Knights of Jade and Ash, The Hammer that Walks, the Uncivil, the Usurper and more. Their descriptions when you meet them are everything you could imagine from those titles/names. You’ve got dark age crusaders winding their way through wastelands strewn with cracked solar panels, beings wearing cloaks of woven undead bodies, half-demons communicating by willing their thoughts into drops of blood and letting insects carry them across the landscape… I could go on, I think I’ve only touched on two chapters worth of what’s on display throughout the story.
I regret not picking this one up on launch day and letting it fall to the bottom of my to-read stack, especially with the sequel due early next year (The Malice) and a short story due by the end of the week (The Hammer and the Goat). It’s also on sale right now for 8 bucks, down from 17, so if you trust my taste at all this would be an opportune time to pick it up.