Book Review : Vagabonds by Hao Jingfang

Vagabonds (Amazon Link)
Author : Hao Jingfang
Published By : Gallery / Saga Press
Year Published : 2020
Genre / Tags : Science Fiction, Literary Fiction, Adult Fiction, Politics
Formats : Hardcover, Paperback, Audiobook, eBook
# of Pages : 608 pages


A century after the Martian war of independence, a group of kids are sent to Earth as delegates from Mars, but when they return home, they are caught between the two worlds, unable to reconcile the beauty and culture of Mars with their experiences on Earth in this spellbinding novel from Hugo Award–winning author Hao Jingfang.


Vagabonds is a Chinese sci-fi novel by Hao Jingfang and translated by Ken Liu. At 608 pages, this is one of the longer books I’ve read this year and quite the time sink. I can readily recommend this title to fans of more literary sci-fi and serious, sophisticated prose that has the characters examining the world around them introspectively. A lot of effort is put toward world-building right down to the nitty-gritty details of technology, political systems, and the culture of not only Earth in 2096 but also a highly developed Mars. The two are at odds, with a history of war and existing tensions.

The story follows multiple young people who have traveled between the planets and can be considered vagabonds- adrift between two worlds, holding complex feelings for both and alleigience to neither. Just wandering in a strange space between. During its most shining moments of prose, Vagabonds does well in capturing that unique sort of journey.

The main character of focus is Luo Ying, a young dancer whose grandfather presides over Mars. Her parents died under mysterious circumstances. Across the span of her journey, she seeks to find out more about them and also process her thoughts on Mars versus Earth. Is Mars really headed in an ideal direction and geared toward the betterment of all, or are the differing ideals she observed on Earth more freeing? Black and white thinking is not abound in Vagabonds. Both worlds are gradually developed and treated with a nuanced view, though later chapters convey the more harrowing and concerning aspects. I was impressed by the combination of imaginative technologies and allegorical modern issues which could convincingly persist so many years in the future.

But there were many rambling chapters with intensive world building that was more demanding and info-dumpy than immersive. This is a quiet, elegantly-written book that consistently ponders instead of taking action. The plot moves slowly and while most questions are answered by book’s end, the story seemed oddly thin after such a massive page count.

I also found the characters lacking in appeal, flavor, or well-rounded development. This could have to do with the future being so sleek and controlled, but very few of the individuals portrayed here left much of an impact. They all sound a bit similar in voice and style, reminiscent of my issues with the characters of Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. As a side note, if you read and greatly enjoyed that book you may want to give Vagabonds a try as it has some tonal similarities.

A note about the translation- I’ve read many translations, ones that seemed good and ones that seemed bad. This translation strikes me as noteworthy in its depth and clarity. Word choices are carefully handled and well-fitting to the literary weight of this work.

In closing, Vagabonds is worth checking out if you enjoy more mature and thought-provoking sci-fi with an emphasis on world building. The political and social tensions conveyed make an interesting contrast to present-day realities.

But a thrilling course of events, tight plotting, and deep character development all take a backseat by comparison. I found this book as a whole to be too lacking in those key areas.

Note : I received an ARC of this book from the publisher for review.

Overall Rating – 6.5/10

Why You Should Try It : If you’re looking for a smart, sophisticated read with an impressive attention to detail in world-building, philosophy, and politics in a plausible futuristic world.

Why You Might Not Like It : This is a slow read that in my view got lost quite often in exhausting details and a not-so-compelling cast and plot.

Vagabonds (Amazon Link)

Thank you for checking out my review of Vagabonds. Have you heard of this title and have read it or plan to read it? I’m very interested in reading more sci-fi by Asian authors, though something a bit less intimidating might be more suited to my tastes next time. If you have any recommendations I’d love to hear them, sci-fi recs in general are also welcome. It’s Monday and the fresh start of a new week, happy reading and hope you’re feeling and doing well. ~ Kitty


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