The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Hanrahan – Book Review Repost

Series: The Black Iron Legacy # 1
Published by: Orbit
Genre: Dark Fantasy, Grimdark, High Fantasy
Pages: 544 (kindle edition)
Review Format: e-book
Purchased Copy.

I enjoy playing catch-up at year’s end – time is ever a limited resource and great books fall through the cracks more often than I’d like. One such prime example is The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, the first part in The Black Iron Legacy sequence, a wildly imaginative work. This is the author’s debut and it has put Hanrahan on just about every book blogger’s radar, at least in my tiny corner of the internet. Many have called it “the best debut of 2019” and now that I’ve read it, I can see why.

The Gutter Prayer is immensely imaginative, one of the first books I would hand over to someone who used to love fantasy but has gotten worn down by the conventions of the genre. It is an ambitious novel, unafraid to tackle the nature of gods and their relationship with their faithful, as well as economic inequality, the effects on deadly disease ravaging through the populace and more.

Guerdon is a fully realized city, every detail you could ask for mapped out and integrated into a heterogenous whole. I wouldn’t say it’s seamlessly done – no great city, no harbor port town in our own history could be described as seamless in that sense – but it is masterfully executed. This is a city of industry, with all that comes with that, from the shit-filled gutters and quarters dominated by crime and poverty and the stone plague to the homes of the middle-class and the boroughs of the rich, all the way to the city-within-a-city that is the Alchemist guild’s district. And that’s not even touching on the catacombs and tunnels down below, housing their own chthonic horrors…

So much is at play here, and it is slowly revealed through the eyes of an increasing cast of stellar characters, the first among which is a gutter rat of a thief called Cari, the lost daughter of a once-prominent Guerdon family. Cari is angry, brash and vengeful but above all else, she is as unlucky as they come, as before too long at all, she finds herself under the assault of strange, nightmarish visions whose appearance spells a great deal of trouble not only for Cari but for the city entire.

Her two friends, Spar and Rat – a Stone Man and a ghoul, respectively – further complicate matters. Spar is afflicted with a disease that slowly turns him to stone from the inside out. Before too long, he will be a prisoner of his own body, a living statue dependent on the mercy of others, until his lungs, his heart, his veins and blood also harden and calcify and he expires. The only stop-gap measure is an alchemical compound known as alkahest, expensive and difficult to get unless given directly by the Alchemist Guild; which is why so many Stone Men work as manual labourers for the Guild. But Spar doesn’t work for the alchemists– no, he’s part of the Brotherhood, a Thieves’ Guild, if you will, once under the control of Spar’s father Igde – an idealist who exemplified the romantic Robin Hood mentality of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor –  but now under new, far more cutthroat, less idealistic management. I didn’t necessarily like Spar for the first half of the novel; he’s hard-headed and obstinate, just like his decisions. But he grew on me, just like that crystalline formation keeps growing on him, taking away the physical boundaries of his humanity one inch at a time.

The ghoul, Rat, is a young member in a race of psychopomps, creatures that feed not only on dead flesh but on the souls of the dead, delivering them to the bosom of the Keeper gods, one would think. They’re a fun lot, ghouls are, and Rat most of all.

Ghouls love their eldritch mysterious stairwells descending infinitely into fucking shit-and-mushroom town.

Other characters also loan us readers their headspace – Jere, a thief-taker; an assistant at the university of Guerdon; a saint or two. These myriad viewpoints allow for a depth of experiences within the world, a mapping out of the different layers of society within this city. It’s downright Dickensian in how Guerdon is itself not only the battleground of so many different ways of life trying to assert themselves over the others, but a main character in its own right.

The city hasn’t slept. It staggers, drunktired, into the new day, uncertain of everything and looking for a fight.

Written in the present tense, it might take you a chapter or three of getting used to if you’re as used to reading in the past tense as I am – it’s certainly no hindrance to the enjoyment of The Gutter Prayer. I suspect Hanrahan chose it in order to further reinforce the feeling of immediacy in the action that often dominates the pages of the novel.

I must commend the author for the glossary of delightful monstrosities within these pages, from the alchemists’ insane servants, the Tallowmen with their wax bodies and sharp axes:

Before they can get to it, the door opens and out comes a Tallowman. Blazing eyes in a pale, waxy face. He’s an old one, worn so thin he’s translucent in places, and the fire inside him shines through holes in his chest. He’s got a huge axe, bigger than Cari could lift, but he swings it easily with one hand. He laughs when he sees her and Rat outlined against the fire.

all the way to the Gullheads; from the cursed Stone Men who become stronger the more their deadly disease progresses, to The Fever Knight, a creature of nightmare held together within its plate armour. Oh, and if these aren’t enough, there’s also worm-people, the arcane and utterly disgusting Crawling Ones:

Its voice is oddly musical and warm, but behind it she can hear the flapping and slithering of the worms, like hot fat on a frying pan. “What, may we ask, brings you walking in the places beneath?” It extends a cloth-wrapped “hand” to Aleena and helps her up. She feels worms pop and squish beneath the cloth as she pulls herself upright.

Ew. The descriptions of all these creatures lean almost towards the grotesque but they are all so very excellent. The cover, too, is a work of art, capturing the tone of the book perfectly – illustrated by Richard Anderson and designed by Steve Panton, it is nothing short of exquisite. If you take a look at it, you’ll get an idea, a feeling of what exactly awaits and this is witness to the makings of a great book cover.

Something that left a bit of a negative impression – I spied quite a few typos, an unusual number for an Orbit-published book. Something that could be cleaned up from the ebook and future reprints but at this point, I’m wondering whether to start offering my services as a copyreader.

Politics, magic, religion and alchemy all come to a head in The Gutter Prayer. Driven by a stellar cast of characters and an enviable imagination, this book is a must-read for fantasy lovers. My score for Hanrahan’s debut is 5/5 stars. 

Originally published over at booknest.eu — I’m archiving all my older reviews on this here blog, as it would be easier to categorize them all.

The Shadow Saint by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan – Book Review

Series: The Black Iron Legacy # 2
Published by: Orbit
Genre: Dark Fantasy, Grimdark, High Fantasy
Pages: 567
Format: e-book
Review Copy Courtesy of NetGalley

If you haven’t read The Gutter Prayer and don’t know if you want to, read my review of it here.

The Gutter Prayer was an exceptional debut – no matter how hard I thought about the story, I couldn’t find anything wrong with it! In The Shadow Saint, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan opens up Guerdon to all-new existential threats, which our cast of new and returning heroes are sorely lacking in preparation for; while some characters were dearly missed, their absence keenly felt at one time or another, the cast swells with memorable new names.

I spoke last time of how Guerdon was akin to a living being, a city of immense character equalled by Dickens’ London in Bleak House, for example; what I had not foreseen back when I first drew the comparison was that one of the major characters of the first novel would literally transform into a large part of the city. Following the Gutter Miracle which took place during the culmination of the first novel, Guerdon has undergone a transformation; the so-called New City is a triumph of one man’s will, an organism made of stone with a benevolent will of its own. But some things remain the same:

Feverish, pugnacious, the city is alive in a way she hasn’t seen since before the Crisis. She can almost forget that, less than a year ago, this square was besieged by monsters. When the gutters ran with blood, and the sky filled with vengeful gods.

Time and again, Hanrahan shows mastery over character voice. Eladora’s introspections are an academic’s curiosity through and through (I would know); the spy, meanwhile, thinks exactly as a spy would, studying every angle, observing every situation, looking always for an edge to gain on everyone else for his own purposes. His masks take on a life of their own, personas he puts on and then discards. Some stick, however, and this allows us to touch upon a topic of great interest to me – just when does pretense turn to reality? The spy’s point of view is masterful – not since Sins of Empire have I come across such a compelling shadow operative. And this one, with all due respect to Brian, would run circles around Michel. 

The Haithian, Terevant’s, way of viewing the world is that of a poet in a soldier’s uniform. I adored the story of this failed officer, a failed younger scion of the powerful Everesic family, as he sought to redeem himself in the eyes of kin and country, only to realize…but no, that would spoil something, wouldn’t it? “He dislikes feeling hollow. He wants to be on his way already, to fill himself with purpose.”  Terevant has a lot going for him, and his storyline is satisfying from beginning to end.

I took great pleasure in Eladora’s stolen moments of thaumaturgical studies, the magic system Hanrahan employs is interesting and costly to the caster:

She clenches her first, slowly, imagining the spell paralyzing a target, holding them in unseen chains of sorcery- but then she loses control, the magic slipping through her fingers. For a moment, her hand feels like she’s thrust it into an open fire, the unseen chains suddenly turned to molten metal, her skin blistering. A spell gone awry can discharge unpredictably – if she swallows the power she’s drawn down, she can ground it inside her body, risking internal damage. If she lets it go, she might ignite something, and this cramped backroom in the IndLib’s parliamentary office is crammed with papers and books.

But a little magic is far from the most interesting skill Eladora acquires. Her evolution through The Shadow Saint marks the best character arc Hanrahan has written yet and I look forward to seeing how it’ll resolve in the third book of the series. There’s a lot of her former teacher Ongent in Eladora – as much, perhaps, as the effects of the Thay blood she was so uncomfortable with, in The Gutter Prayer.

The spy – his endgame is such a good fucking mystery. I’m proud of calling his true identity about mid-way through. Still there was plenty to surprise me, and I wish, I really wish I could gush about how cool all of it is – but I dare not.

What I missed, more than anything else, was the active part the Alchemists’ guild previously took in the political and social life of Guerdon. The horrid Tallowmen are gone, and so are the other vat-grown monstrosities that so chilled and thrilled me and many others. A little something was teased out towards the end of the novel, to do with a certain alchemist who appeared  previously – which gives me hope that this most devious of players on Guerdon’s political board will make her return before all is said and done.

The Keeper Church, meanwhile, features prominently throughout. I, like Eladora, missed Aleena, the fuming, cursing, flame-wielding saint of the Church; the Keeper Gods have kept busy after her fall, and have made themselves a fair amount of crazy idiot saints. Fanatics, plenty of fanatics – and you’ll love to hate them, just as I did.

I appreciated what Hanrahan showed us of the world outside the city of Guerdon – the necromantic empire of Haith, a place in which the dead have long since outnumbered the living, once the greatest power in the world – now in retreat before an enemy that defies even their countless undead hordes; glimpses of Ishmere, with their mad gods, thirsty for ever greater expansion. Oh, and a cartel ran by dragons is a thing. Wicked, I know.

Supporting character, whether new or returning ones, left an impression. Politician and reformist Effro Kelkin makes a return after his miraculous survival, attempting to finagle his way back to power. I love the man, and this description encapsulates everything great about his character: “He manages to be simultaneously the wily old trickster who knows how to pull every lever and work every cheat in the system, and the firebrand who’s going to burn it all down and build something better…A better tomorrow, if only you’ll believe in him – and yourself. No guilds, no gods – just honest hard work, charity and integrity.” Great character, possibly born in the wrong world. Other supporting characters I cheered for include the Haithian war hero Olthic, brother to Terevant, who works to make an ally of Guerdon, no matter the results of the oncoming election; a career politician who switches affiliations faster than I switch hairstyles; Ramegos, a brilliant thaumaturgist whose knowledge is indispensable to the IndLibs and Eladora alike; and Emlyn, a child-saint whose story is intricately linked to that of the spy.

I continue to fall in love with this world and characters, the more I think about them. As I revisit the hundred passages I’ve highlighted for one reason or another, I am awed by the mastery Hanrahan shows – in quality of his prose, in the mastery of voice, in the deep worldbuilding he’s woven into this story of saints and mad gods. This is my book of January 2020, no doubt about it. My score for The Shadow Saint is 5/5 stars. The Black Iron Legacy series is worth every hour you’ll put into it, every minute. Every fucking second.

This review was originally published over at Booknest.eu.

Book Review: Arm of the Sphinx by Josiah Bancroft

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(Minor Spoilers Ahead)

Senlin Ascends (review herewas an excellent first act in Josiah Bancroft’s fully realized and fleshed out world, with intricate characters and a number of mysteries which set the imagination on fire. Originally self-published in 2015, Arm of the Sphinx came to be re-released by Orbit this March, in preparation for The Hod King which is coming out in September 2018. After reading this book, I’m beyond excited to get my hands on it! That said, I’m getting ahead of myself and so, let’s jump right into the review!

Plot:

Picking up a few months after the end of Bancroft’s first novel, Arm of the Sphinx sees our main characters scrapping by outside the Tower, living the life of gentlemen(and women!) pirates, only taking a fifth or a tenth of whatever the cargo of their victims’ ships is. Not terribly efficient as far as piracy goes, with our daring airship crew often going to bed with empty stomachs and always on high alert. The enemies made in the last novel are nothing if not tenacious, after all, and although our heroes start off free and outside the Tower, the problem now is: how do they get back in? It’s a problem that gets compounded pretty early on in the story and in a funny way, too, but with some serious life-or-dead consequences.

In the previous book, Senlin ascended(hah!) through several of the ringdoms, starting from the Market at the base of the Tower all the way to New Babel, experiencing a number of the Tower’s hospitalities during the climb. Arm of the Sphinx cuts the number of ringdoms Senlin and his crew visit to The Silk Gardens, which continues the tradition of introducing strange environments into the greater whole that is The Tower of Babel. Other areas also figure into the novel, of course, but I won’t name them for fear of spoiling some of the enjoyment. Suffice to say, no small part of the novel takes place in the air outside the Tower itself and the crew dynamics on the Stone Cloud are a welcome addition!

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Themes and Characters:

The Arm of the Sphinx differs from Senlin Ascends in that the focus is no longer on Senlin alone. A number of PoVs now follow the rest of Senlin’s crew as well, offering us readers several different perspectives on how each of the Stone Cloud’s crewmates thinks and engages with the world and their peers. While I’ve immensely enjoyed my time lurking in Senlin’s head, the switch-up makes for a nice change of pace and develops characters I loved seeing on the sidelines in the previous novel.

The novel has a lighter tone than its predecessor, which is something of a plus. The oppressive start to Senlin Ascends and our protagonist’s inability to deal with the reality he found himself in didn’t quite make for light reading, back at the start of Ascends. A big part of this is the Stone Cloud’s crew, with Voleta deserving a special mention; she might, in fact, be my favourite tree-climbing, vent-crawling adrenaline junkie in all of fiction! Something about her, the way she enjoys her freedom as well as just how much she grows during the events of this second novel is absolutely wonderful.

What about Senlin’s character development? I’m as happy with it as can be! Senlin, occasionally going by the name of Captain Tom Mudd, continues to develop due to external factors while nevertheless keeping true to a unique philosophy about life and knowledge that no one else in the whole Tower seems to have. His choices serve to create a contrast between Senlin and everyone else while speaking of a moral core which equips him with the tools necessary to combat the Tower’s influence time and time again.

Something that deserves a mention, theme-wise, is the philosophy within Arm of the Sphinx. Books continue to play a key role and for all the right reasons; each chapter starts off with epigraphs from in-universe novels or diaries. A conflict this novel sets up is the dangers of education versus those of illiteracy — the literate man from outside the Tower can be naive to a fault like Senlin was at his journey’s beginning. At the same time, the lack of knowledge as to the ‘why’ behind the Tower’s existence is a great danger of its own. This is far from the only philosophical undercurrent of the novel, but I would be loathe to give up much more for all of you who haven’t had the pleasure to experience the mysteries the Tower of Babel offers.

Conclusion and Score:

I am unbelievably happy to say that Arm of the Sphinx doesn’t suffer from the expectations  Senlin Ascends created. I loved Arm every step of the way: the start, the middle, and the brutal ending which demands I pre-order The Hod King! This novel gave me the feels, as kids nowadays say. All the feels.

It’s a great second act which reveals a dozen mysteries and sets up many, many more. Arm of the Sphinx subverted my expectations, confused and thrilled me in all the right ways, never frustrating in a negative way. The language is once again excellent, the dialogue witty and entertaining to no end.

The score I gave this on Goodreads is five out of five stars!  I also grant this novel two out of two Sphinx arms, as well as a whole bag of steampunk-y devices and knick-knacks!

Buy it, read it, enjoy it, gush about it on the Internet. I just did, and I’m much the better for it!