Vanguard, by Ann Aguirre

17 Aug

Please be advised: back in 2009, I was Ms Aguirre’s virtual assistant, for about ten months. I was also one of the first beta readers for Razorland, the manuscript that became Enclave, the first novel set in this world.

Despite how much I like Ms Aguirre’s work, I have not reviewed any of the novels in the series, or anything else by her written or published after 2008, to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Given that said relationship, as well as my beta reading any of her work, ended about eight years ago, I decided I would review this novel, no matter what. Keep in mind that we are still friendly online.

I was lucky to get an ARC about three weeks ago; I really wanted to publish this review on release day, but…well, you know what happens to plans.

Caveat: there is some violence on the page, as well as violence in most of the characters’ past.

Vanguard, by Ann Aguirre

This story is set in a post-apocalyptic world where humanity is recovering from, basically, a zombie plague. (Except these are not truly zombies.)

If you have not read the Razorland books, you will definitely have questions about what happened before, especially because there are repeated references to past events, by pretty much all characters. You will also have questions because the world is presented with very little background explanation. It’s not hard to extrapolate and come up with your own conclusions as to what brought the world to this point, but if you truly want all the whys and wherefores, you will end up reading the rest of the series.

Which is pretty damned good, so it’s a win-win.

If you are a fan of the Razorland series, you should know that this is not the beginning of a second trilogy; it is not even a direct continuation of the original trilogy. You should also know that Vanguard is told in third person, from three deep points of view. This is Tegan’s story–one I had very much hoped to read since meeting her in the ruins, during the events narrated in Enclave.

Oh, alright; it’s also about Szarok and Morrow, but the best parts are about Tegan.

Here, have a blurb:

Since the war ended, Tegan has dreamed of an epic journey, so when she has the opportunity to sign on as ship’s doctor, she can’t wait. It’s past time to chart her course. Millie Faraday, the kindest girl in the free territories, also yearns to outrun her reputation, and warrior-poet James Morrow would follow Tegan of the Staff to the ends of the earth.

So their company seems set but fate brings one more to their number. Tegan will battle incredible odds while aiding the Uroch vanguard, who has ventured forth to save his people. Szarok is strange and beautiful, like a flower that blooms only in the dark. She shouldn’t allow him close, as such a relationship is both alien and verboten. But through stormy seas and strange lands, she will become stronger than she ever knew.

Adventures almost never go according to plan, and when she understands what her heart truly wants, it might change her life forever…

Quick and dirty summary of the world: at some time in the fairly recent past, civilization collapsed, due to the rapid global spread of a virus/mutation. Humans retreated and hid from the hordes of flesh eating mutants, referred to by most as Freaks. Some humans hid inside buildings and high rises in the cities, hunting for old food, rats, birds. Some hid underground. Some in small, fortified settlements away from the ruins.

However, the Freaks evolved, much faster than anyone in the time before could have believed possible. Eventually, hiding from them was not enough. Now, three different types of humanoids share the Free Territories: the descendants of the humans from before; the Gulgur, smaller than most humans, peaceful and friendly; and the Uroch, the next step in the evolution of the Freaks, who allied with the humans to defeat the Horde.

The Uroch have been confined to one of the ruins since the last battle, a cold miserable place where they cannot hunt to survive, and where they lack the resources to improve their lot. So they send a Vanguard, Szarok, one who already speaks the humans’ language, one who will find a place where the Uroch, too, can thrive and be free.

As Szarok starts his journey towards the largest of the human settlements in the area, he encounters two human females traveling there: Tegan of the Staff and Millie Farraday. Eventually, Tegan, Szarock, Morrow and Millie board the Catalina, a ship going north along the coast, each looking for something different.

Morrow has a case of unrequited love for Tegan; his main aim as they set out is to wear down Tegan’s resistance to a relationship with him.

Millie has faced plenty of tragedy and hardship, but her sunny nature and natural optimism have allowed her to grow up without undue bitterness. While she has a case on Morrow, she’s mature enough not to center her life on hope. Her aim is to see the world, to learn, to find her place in the world.

Szarok is looking for a haven for the Uroch, a place where they can prosper and continue to grow, without the constant fear and prejudice of the humans around them.

Tegan is a healer, though her vocation is not just to heal, but to learn. After her second teacher dies, of illness and old age, Tegan sets out on a journey to fulfill his dying wish, and, though she doesn’t know it yet, to find herself.

Now, I don’t want to spoil the details of the plot, so I won’t go into details; suffice it to say, there’s a lot of adventure, there’s risk, and loss. Pirates, castaways, travel, survival, growth.

There is so much sorrow, memories of wounds survived but not cleansed.

There is joy, so pure and true, you cry at its absence.

The story is told from Tegan’s, Szarok’s and Morrow’s point of view; Millie is definitely one of the protagonists, but the lack of her perspective felt…a bit jarring, in a way. We learn about her mostly from Tegan’s and Morrow’s observations of her character, and through dialogue, but there’s a remove, if you will. I liked her, but I didn’t care for her anywhere near as deeply as I care for Tegan or Szarok.

Out of the four main characters, Morrow’s is the charmed life; the son of the most important man in the isle of Rosemere, he has never known true tragedy or deprivation. In many ways, he’s still a boy rather than a young man. Though he travels, his real journey is the normal growing pains, from adolescence to adulthood.

Szarok is an entirely different type; not only is he not human–and boy, does Aguirre know how to write this type of character (oh, Velith, how I miss thee!¹)–but he also both fears and hates humans, yet he must learn from them. Szarok is uncomfortable around humans, forced to repress many of his normal reactions to everything from food to noises. At the same time, he’s deeply aware of their fear and unease around him.

Growing to first tolerate, then enjoy human company, in Tegan’s person, is both joyful and difficult for him.

Tegan…ah, Tegan!

Born in the ruins, Tegan carries deep emotional and physical scars from her years there, as well as from all the loses and hardships since, with Deuce’s and Fade’s help, she left that nightmarish place behind.

Early in the story, Tegan muses, I always get up again. That’s what you learn from falling. Eventually, she also learns to hope, and to open her heart. She finally faces the ghosts of her memories, the pain of her own survival, and makes the conscious decision to live fully.

If you cannot tell, I really love Tegan. Ms Aguirre absolutely broke my heart with her. Szarok is a close second here, particularly past a key turning point in the story, somewhere about half way in (which you’ll recognize when you reach it).

On the world building: personally, I like that not every question regarding the world, or the future, is answered here. Whether Ms Aguirre returns to Razorland or not, the world building is consistent and complete enough as it is; there’s enough left open for the reader to imagine her own answers.

I also appreciate that the stakes feel so real; neither life nor happiness are guaranteed. You do your best, and you hope, and the rest is up to fate.

Vanguard is a very solid story, but I had some issues with the pacing. There are some parts of the story that felt rushed, lacking detail; a bit like one of those montages in movies where a few flashing scenes of seasons mean that time has passed. Because of how the story is structured, this seems to happen several times; in reality, it’s the same time span, from three different points of view. I didn’t make the connection (same span of time, three perspectives) until much later, and it seemed a weakness of the narrative.

Weighing characterization and world building against the pacing issue, I’m giving Vanguard 7.75 out of 10.

~ * ~

¹ Velith is a most wonderful character from Aguirre’s Grimspace/Sirantha Jax’s stories.

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