Through the eyes of teenage angst, The Vagabond King wrestles with the grandest questions of all: life, death, love, and what it all means. Vagabond is about being emotionally and spiritually lost and how we struggle throughout our lifetimes to find our place in the universe. If The Vagabond King sounds deep, well, it is very deep. It is not light reading by any measure.
At the core of this novel is the teenager Christopher, a child of wealth and privilege. He struggles to come to grips with his mother’s death, his emotionally distant father, and his own self-identity. Angst-ridden, brooding, self-absorbed and often irritating, he is not a likable character. He suddenly leaves home and school and, through various circumstances, comes to live with Magda, a poor waitress, and her elderly Hungarian father.
Magda, a dark beauty approaching middle age, is a waitress with a Ph.D.’s knowledge of ancient mythology. She sets the undertone for the whole book. Christopher pines and lusts for her while she fills his head with tales of ancient gods and heroes.
Over the course of many months, Christopher spends a great deal of time with Magda’s father, whom Christopher dubs the “Vagabond King.” They drink beer and listen to the Blues while the old man recalls his youth growing up under communist oppression in Hungary.
Conway brilliantly uses Magda and her father to shape Christopher’s perspective on himself and the universe. But Magda and her father are more than characters; they are reflections of universal forces symbolized in ancient mythology. (I warned you it was going to get deep). If, however, the reader takes Conway’s characters strictly on face value they will come to the same conclusion I did - they are masterfully written and purely original.
I haven’t finished a book so quickly in a long time because these characters were so intriguing. There were times I had to put the book down and simply reflect on how talented this author is. Conway’s dialogue and narration are often mind-blowing. Unfortunately, this is as close to becoming a masterpiece as this book gets. There are several noteworthy flaws that rob this novel of its true potential.
Conway often gets lost while telling this tale. First, he is overly repetitive. Vagabond could have easily been 100 pages shorter. Also, it had more than a fair share of simple mechanical errors a good editor could have easily fixed. These flaws, however, didn’t keep The Vagabond King out of my Top Picks.
What kept this novel out of my top picks was how often Conway departs the narrative and ceases all character voice. It’s as if the story goes on pause and Conway himself begins to ramble. It felt like I was watching a play and one of the actors quit reciting his lines and began talking directly to the audience. It slowed the book down and often left me wondering whose perspective I was currently dealing with.
Overall, however, Vagabond is beautifully written, often brilliant, and suitable for ages sixteen and up for mild sexual content. It is because of Conway’s astonishing characters that I recommend this book to anyone interested in literary fiction. However, as currently written, I can only give The Vagabond King 85 out of 99 cents. The good news is with further editing it could be so much more.
99 Cents worth of James Conway links:
James Conway's website
The Vagabond King on Amazon
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