The Malice is the second book in Peter Newman’s “Vagrant” series. The first, the eponymous “The Vagrant” was one of my favourite books from 2015, so the sequel had rather a lot to live up to. In short, it delivers – a vivid world, some charming characters with believable development and emotional heft, and a plot which carries both choices and consequences.
The world is changed a little from that of the first book; then a southern continent seething with demonic forces and broken cities looked to overcome an empire in the north, sclerotic and hanging on to ancient high technology. Now, well, things are different. The Empire of the Winged Eye still holds a line, its people kept safe from mutations by hardened technology, repressive government, and slightly worrying social mores. The Empire sees the creatures that have entered this world as abominations – and the half breeds, those warped by the touch of the Infernal, as deficiencies to be cleansed.
But things have changed in the South. There, the monstrosities once united under the Usurper are intent on maintaining their own petty kingdoms. Each is a combination of horror and vitality. If the twisted monstrosities that rule them are petty and often cruel, those that survive within their fiefs have the energy and drive surely missing from the Empire of the Eye. Each of the surviving enclaves of demons has its own flavour – from the broken, slowly decaying sky-fortress of the Man Shape, to the distributed consciousness of the First. Each is repulsive, but carries its own strengths. The half-breeds have their own places too, carved out of the journey of the Vagrant in the previous book – struggling to hold together a hard-fought integration between mutants and those that feel more normal, trapped between the judgments of the Eye and the Infernal. This sort of integration, the gradual collapse of the Infernal into something recognisable in the realms of the human, is one of the avatars of theme running through the narrative – an enemy is not eternal, a foe can change, and if that mutability does not guarantee shared interests, still, it’s something to be recognised. In any event, the South is no longer the behemoth it was, and if it is less terrifying for it, it is perhaps somewhat safer.
Both the Infernal and the Eye are wonderfully drawn creations, societies with drastically different underpinnings that spin out in their interactions with each other at the macro and micro level. The soaring sky-ships of the eye are of a piece with their casual dismissal of the half-breeds as tainted, and the acceptance of the Infernal for all kinds is wrapped up inside their mercucrial cruelty. Neither seems like a particularly good place to live, but are living, even thriving social constructs. This is a world which can leap off the page, sink fangs into you, and never let go.
The characters – well, we’ve shifted generations now, from the mute soldier of The Vagrant. His daughter carries his sword now, the one which once belonged to one of the rulers of the Eye, now dead and broken. Barely out of childhood, she takes up the sword with a desire for action – and discovers that everything is rather more complicated than she might have liked. If the Vagrant was an avatar of stolidity, duty, movement, then his child is a figure of innocence, facing up to a world which disdains that quality, and demanding its respect. She’s charming to walk alongside, is Vesper – a person with a moral integrity, a sense for what is right, which contrasts with the more soiled figures who surround her. She has a friend, of sorts, a guardian – who, in the interests of spoilers I’ll only suggest is broken, both by the circumstances, and by their conception, and, of course, she has a goat.
But Vesper is at the centre of the triad; this is partly a coming of age story, as she realises the duties and sacrifices she may have accidentally put on when she took up the sword. But it’s also a tale of exploration, a journey of discovery intermingled with horror and delight – and seeing Vesper grow, not into the role expected of her, but into the one she chooses – is marvellous. There’s some absolutely marvellous villains here as well, of course – repulsive demons, shifty black marketeers, and more. There’s also a marvellous supporting cast; I’m particularly fond of the creature living within the shell of one of the Kinghts of Jade and Ash – no longer an elite unit of infernal killers, no longer yoked to the will of their commander. Instead, this individual is trying to work out what – and who – he is, and that journey is as compelling as Vesper’s – ash she moves to maturity, he wavers toward humanity, of a sort.
The plot – well, it’s a journey, as Vesper sets out with Gamma’s sword to close the Breach. To, in theory, seal off the Infernal from the world. It’s a story of her climb into adulthood, of sorts, and the story of a search for redemption. There’s exploration of the history of the Breach, of the creation of the Empire of the Winged Eye, and the sacrifices demanded thereby. There’s history here, and there’s sacrifices aplenty – personal demons fought and conquered, or succumbed to – and more literal demons likewise. This is a story of integration, and of consequences – and it’s a cracking read, as well.