This Week, I Read… (2021 #18)

#48 – The Vagrant, by Peter Newman

  • Mount TBR: 46/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: A non-human character
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I did like enough about it to finish it, despite the concerns and complaints this review will list in detail; I don’t care for it enough to keep going with the series.

I started this book almost two months ago, but in the middle of what eventually became obvious was a major reading slump. After 60 pages, I put the book on hold, reasoning that I was frustrated with reading in general and not with this specific book.

When I picked it back up, I started over, and this time, I annotated it to help myself pay more attention, and to pick at the edges of the mysteries that lie thick on the ground in this story. The “eight years ago” narrative line did eventually answer most of my questions–those it didn’t were almost uniformly about world-building details I was struggling with.

So there’s my first major complaint: this world is going for “cool” and “dark” without really having a cohesive style. Sometimes it’s idyllic landscape, sometimes it’s the Blasted Lands (which I will forever think of as a zone in World of Warcraft, but I guess the author hasn’t played that.) The few cities had distinct but fairly generic personalities–one was a little Blade Runner, because there were neon signs everywhere, while another felt like a standard large fantasy town, and eventually the Shining City is certainly shiny, but also devoid of any originality.

The infernal aspects of the world-building–literally, the demons and how they worked–started out as an interesting concept, which I interpreted as them basically being incompatible with reality as we know it, and to combat that, they anchored themselves (in various and generally disgusting ways) to living flesh. Gross, creepy, excellent. But my early notes about what I pictured the Usurper and the Uncivil and the fallen Knights as actually looking like, or how I imagined they functioned, didn’t end up jiving with information that came later. And yeah, readers can be wrong about things that authors set out clearly, but this felt more like I had developed a framework for the infernals that was more codified than what the author himself envisioned, because there were contradictions, and there were gaps, and whenever I encountered one I got frustrated.

Another frustration quickly sprouted from the style of the prose. What at first was a charming way to make sure I’m paying enough attention to connect some dots eventually became a slog. Yes, make me work for the connections about characters and plot. No, don’t make me dig through every single line of a fight scene trying to figure out whose limbs are being cut off and who is buried under rubble and who died. There is a constant and deliberate lack of clarity to the narrative that I feel would serve the story better if it were saved for those big special occasions–who is the Vagrant, why can’t he talk, how did he end up with the baby–than spreading it like a frosting over literally everything down to the smallest and most mundane details.

This extends to names, as many characters don’t have them at all, or only get them late in the story, and even when they do, they are often still referred to by epithets. Harm doesn’t need to constantly be “the green-eyed man,” or I don’t know, maybe he does, because half the time when he or the Vagrant look at something, the text doesn’t say “The Vagrant looked at the sky,” it says, “Amber eyes searched the clouds.”

That’s another complaint–the detachment. At the bottom of page 107, I scrawled a note to myself: “I’ve just hit on what I don’t like about this narrative style–the descriptions sound like I’m reading a screenplay.” The sentence which triggered this revelation reads: “Sweaty faces shine in shielded lamps.” It’s the first sentence after a scene break, and it frustrated me because I could see the effect of the description in my head–sweat glowing by lantern light in an otherwise dark space–but I didn’t know who those faces belonged to! I didn’t know who to picture because that sentence told me nothing about where the scene had jumped to! The following line tells me that men and women are in tunnels–okay, I’m in tunnels, but who are the men and women? The third sentence finally gives me a character name and I know I’m back with Tough Call’s gang.

And this, too, is a constant problem. Not every chapter or scene break takes that long to establish who I’m reading about and where we are, but throughout the story, there’s this repeated stepping back from the characters, a distancing, by referring to their actions in that deliberately obscure way. “Reluctantly, amber eyes open.” “Breath labours in the dark.” “A small foot twitches.” I know that active verbs are great and conjugations of “to be” are easy to overuse, but it’s possible to swing the pendulum too far in the other direction. Let my brain rest on some easy verbs and sentence constructions once in a while! Not everything has to be so vague and portentous!

Final stylistic complaint: I dislike present tense narratives in general, but lots of people like them, so whatever, authors are going to keep using present tense and sometimes I’m going to end up reading it. But I absolutely fail to understand the benefits of using it for the past story line. If the main bulk of the story is “now” and uses present tense, shouldn’t the “eight years ago” use past tense? Because, you know, it’s the past?

So after all of that, what did I even like about this? The baby. The goat–the tiny and rare scenes written from her viewpoint are generally hilarious. Harm ended up being okay, in shouldering the weight of one-sided conversations with the silent Vagrant. Though I question the wisdom of having a mute protagonist paired with a deliberately vague and detached narrative style (seems like an obvious recipe for the difficulty I had connecting to the story) I do think Harm brings out the Vagrant’s desire to communicate as they get to know each other, and their deepening relationship as they bond over their struggles to save people, keep themselves and the baby safe, and still find a way to journey onward…okay, that was compelling enough to keep going even when I was frustrated by nearly everything else.

But the ending? No, sorry, this book failed to get me invested enough to care about why our protagonist achieved his apparent goal then decides to reject the dominant social order to do his own thing. I get it–it’s super clear, even for this often-vague story, because the reason is exposited immediately after it happens. But I didn’t care. And I don’t have any need to find out what happens to our ragtag found family of weirdos afterward.

Hm, I hadn’t considered that before. Found family, as a trope, pretty much relies on emotional investment in developed characters, whereas this story opted for (mostly) flat characters viewed from a safely detached distance. No wonder I couldn’t get into it, these goals are fundamentally opposed.

#49 – Last Train to Istanbul, by Ayşe Kulin, translated by John W. Baker

  • Mount TBR: 47/100
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

This book is saved from a single-star rating because I did learn a fair bit about Turkey’s history and the context of its neutrality during WWII.

Very little else about this was interesting, and in fact, the blurb gives the impression that it’s at least partially a romance, but it’s not. It’s not even really about the couple themselves.

Loosely, this is story about family set against the backdrop of war, but even that falls apart as the novel goes on, because the members of the family that were so important in the setup of the story and consistently present in the first half were ignored for the second half, when the plot followed the politicking necessary to make the train journey happen, and introduced many, many, many side characters for horrible things to happen to before and during the journey on the titular train.

I strongly dislike this story’s absolute lack of any recognizable structure. Flashbacks take over without much logic to where they’re placed. Characters are introduced as needed and discarded quickly and often as soon as they’re not necessary to the ultimate goal: getting on the train. I find this flattens the characters, who could otherwise be interesting or at least sympathetic, in favor of making sure the reader knows how truly noble Turkey and the Turkish people are for helping these poor, passive, helpless Jewish people. (There is no subtlety to the messaging in this as a foreign reader.)

Wouldn’t I be more invested in their lives if they were more than the thin stereotypes I’ve seen from so many other war novels?

Even the supposedly “main” couple didn’t generate much sympathy, because the first half of the story spent so much time harping on how selfish their families thought they were for running away together (essentially.) I’m all for “true love > everything else” as a motivation, but since their romance is told to us as a past event and we only witness the tiniest bit of it ourselves as a flashback, the fact that the story strongly emphasized the disruption they caused rather than their happiness together made them less sympathetic. Sure, it’s terrible that they ended up caught in a war because of where they chose to settle when they left Turkey, but it’s terrible in an abstract, academic sense, rather than an immediate one.

I also question the usefulness of the many, many loose threads of side stories left hanging after the train journey ends. If the author introduced us to a buffet of minor characters and attempted to get us invested in their lives, then why does it suddenly refocus on the main family to the exclusion of all else? I could list several examples, but I’ll let the most chilling one cover them all: why did one of the passengers get raped by an unknown assailant (everyone assumes one of the German soldiers on the train) but then forgotten about a handful of pages later? If we never find out who did it, and we barely cover the strain it causes between her and her husband (it’s mentioned, and he wants to go fight the soldiers to vent some rage, but nothing comes of it) then why include it at all? I made this complaint about All the Light We Cannot See as well, that a basically gratuitous rape scene was included to quickly stand in for the horrors of war to women, but neither story gives the trauma of rape any real depth or consideration. It’s there to check a box that some authors apparently think need ticking: this is a war story, and rape happens in war (I’m not arguing that) so some woman needs to get raped before the end of the story.

But no, they really, really don’t, not if it’s a mere footnote of suffering that has no impact on the plot and is never even resolved, in this case.

To wrap this up, I’ll mention I experienced many of the same language and translation issues other reviewers have suffered–this is not elegant prose in English, and because I speak zero Turkish, I’ll never know if the original is better in that regard. But beautiful language wouldn’t have saved this plot, and the plot isn’t the responsibility of the translator.

I can’t recommend this to anyone, and if, like me, this is sitting around in your TBR because you got it for free on World Book Day, I wouldn’t feel bad about discarding this unread.

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