Hopefully the last in my “god damnit, reviewing the last book in a trilogy without spoiling anything” series for a little bit, but I got a chance to chew through the final book in Peter Newman’s The Vagrant universe.
I’ve mentioned in my reviews of his previous books, but I really like Newman’s naming conventions. It reminds me a little bit of a less esoteric Gene Wolfe, and it gives you perfect mental pictures of these things that continue to exist in a post-apocalyptic, dying, war-wracked planet.
Throughout the rest of his trilogy, we’ve seen that turned on the demonic denizens of the setting. See, long, long before the books starts, a giant Breach opens up and infernal beings begin to pour out of it onto our world, an alien world for them. They can barely exist in our atmosphere, and they have to repurpose human beings and other living things as what amounts to space suits. They also leak Essence, a kind of soul-stuff that warps and changes anything it touches, turning some people into Tainted – an entirely new species, or several species loosely unified by their new, otherworldly heritage. I’ve mentioned the Knights of Jade and Ash before, and they’re joined by things like The Man-Shape, the Backwards Child, the living city-state of Wonderland, and many more.
The Seven, capping of the trilogy, finally explores the holy empire that has spent the series opposing these invaders. We’ve gotten glimpses of it before, usually as characters rush past it into the wilderness or return from that wilderness to rest, but here we get not only a tour of the place, but a deeper exploration of its religious practices, its leadership, and its history.
Now, admittedly, in-universe historical lore is a major weakness of mine. I’m the kind of broke-brained nerd who reads The Silmarillion on a yearly basis for fun and who used to sit around reading old D&D manuals for the fluff blurbs. So this feels like it was made for me, finally providing exposition in a setting that has only shown its past through the cracks.
We’ve gotten hints in the previous books that the empire is not necessarily a pleasant place to live, only looking like a shining city on the hill by sheer virtue of not being beset by infernal creatures from another world 24/7. But as the other two books in the trilogy started pointing out that while the world is dangerous, people are not only living but living in harmony with the invaders in a lot of places, I did start to wonder just how wholesome the empire was and how is was staying so “pure.”
Confirming my suspicions, this is very much a story about the concept of paladins and angels taken to their logical extreme. The forces of Order go far enough in one direction to become an authoritarian state governed by an absolute theological institution. But they’re not necessarily evil, or fascist, like I was expecting. They’re a lot deeper than that. Their history stretches further back than you’d ever guess, and the titular Seven have a backstory that is layered in tragedy and triumphs, making you feel sympathetic for the state as a whole even as it starts to perpetuate atrocities. This is not a setting that’s had particularly sympathetic villains before, and it fills a nice gap. Hell, they’re barely villains past a certain point. I’m not going to spoil it, but I went from rolling my eyes and going “oh good, Nazi angel robots” to taking that back very quickly as I read.
Villains obviously can’t push the whole story along themselves, so I should talk about our heroes here too, our protagonists. We finally, finally get to see Vesper and the Vagrant as equals, fighting alongside one another, uniting the disparate themes and narrative styles of the trilogy. Vesper’s chapters are chatty, and whimsical, and full of the optimism that defined The Malice, while the Vagrant’s chapters are a throwback to the first book – minimal dialogue as countless enemies fall before this dying earth Man with No Name and a big, fire-spurting, singing sword. They’re surrounded by a cast that balances their extremes out and provides a more human element to the place, given that at this point in the story they are basically immortal fighting machines that can carve through enemies by the dozen and withstand railgun blasts to the face.
Not to say that it ever gets boring or loses tension, because while those two are functionally immortal, the people around them and the communities they’re protecting may as well be made of wet tissue paper for how vulnerable they are to the predations of this very angry, righteous crusade.
I think that overall the first book of the trilogy remains my favorite, but I’m glad that Newman wrote the two followups to explore the world some more and fill in all the corners and the gaps. It never felt stretched out or padded, or just written for the sake of infodumps, and like the last book I reviewed it makes me want to go back and re-read the earlier stuff with a deeper understanding of why the different parts are moving as they do.