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.

My 13 Favourite Fantasy Reads of 2019

First, let’s get over the rules. One: This is not my “Best of 2019” list. That list is coming at the end of January or the beginning of February. Some of the books that appear here will probably appear there, as well – and some won’t. I’m taking my time with it because I have about five really big releases I want to get through, including Abercrombie’s A Little Hatred. Two…One book per author! There you have it; let’s get on with it, shall we? Oh, and no numerals. None of that, thank you very much – all these are either 4.5 or 5 star reads. And all of them are fantasy – there’ll be a sci-fi bit later on, one hopes.

The Flight of the Darkstar Dragon

Benedict Patrick takes a sojourn away from the folklore-infested Yarnsworld series and pens a short, remarkably enjoyable standalone in a world as imaginative as anything I’ve come to expect from him. Add to the mix a likable lead by the name of Min, an elderly Samuel L. Jackson as her mentor, and a petty villain who will make you want to strangle him time and again, and you’ve got a memorable journey ahead of you.

I happen to adore the deliciously creepy tales of the Yarnsworld, but this portal fantasy really hit the right spot. Imaginative, short and striking a perfect balance between light-hearted exploration and matters of light and death, Benedict’s latest is a memorable adventure you don’t want to miss out on.

You can find my full review here; for my recent interview with Benedict, click here.

God of Gnomes by Demi Harper

This is probably my favourite debut of the year, and that’s saying something. This is the book that made me feel like a child again, standing over a strategy game with a lot of heart in it, and enjoying every last second. Humour, drama, action – you just don’t expect these things when you’re reading about a sentient gemstone. And yet, you get so much more.

You could adapt this into a Dungeon Keeper-style game with minimal issues and a bit of imaginative storytelling, and the world would be all the better for it. I could get a pitch done in three days, game developer person reading this – call me!

You can find the full review here.

The Gutter Prayer

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. 

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.

You can find my full review over here.

Priest of Lies by Peter McLean

Peter McLean’s fantasy Peaky Blinders doesn’t have the right to be as good as it is! I tell you, friends, I bloody love this series – it’s despicably dark and twisted and it forces protagonist Tomas so far out of his comfort zone that it’d be funny…if the world of politics he comes to inhabit wasn’t just as deadly as the world dominated by gang violence from predecessor Priest of Bones.

You can read my review here.

The Sword of Kaigen by M. L. Wang

This is the novel that emotionally shattered me. It’s ah…it’s probably my favourite book of the year, based on emotional punch alone. If I had any money to bet on a SPFBO 2019 winner, I’d bet them all on this one; don’t worry, fellow SPFBO judges, due to my obvious bias, I’m staying away from giving it an official score for booknest.eu’s part in the competition. It’s out of my hands – and I’m really hoping that the other nine finalists are as strong in terms of narrative and characters as this one is.

Here’s my review of it. (Booknest’s “Read” counter tells me this review has been read over 18 thousand times, which seems like an utterly insane number!)

Hero Forged by Josh Erikson

Josh Erikson is one of the finest narrators I’ve ever heard. That sucks, really – because he’s a writer, so you don’t have dozens upon dozens of novels narrated by him; instead, you only have two – Hero Forged and Fate Lashed. Luckily, Josh is also a word wizard, as evidenced by the fact that his urban fantasy series is fucking dope. I don’t particularly care for the subgenre, but I am crazy for Josh’s world – almost as crazy as for main characters Gabe and Heather!

Me, enjoying for Hero Forged

You can find my review here.

Wrath of Empire

I am burdened by the greatest wrath – I have not yet read the conclusion to McClellan’s series, Blood of Empire. And when Wrath was such an excellent book – a novel whose greatest strength are its characters, a novel as explosive as the gunpowder Brian’s Powder Mages snort in what sure feels like unhealthy quantities — but I’m sure they’re fine. Right?

My review of this excellent book, y’all can find here. (I’ll permit myself a brag here – when I posted it on r/fantasy, this review was hot! Great discussion over there!)

Occultist by Oliver Mayes

From my review:

Oliver Mayes’ debut novel, Occultist, has made a litRPG believer out of me, an accomplishment I wasn’t certain would ever be in the cards for me. All this, considering how each time I’d picked up a book in this particular subgenre of speculative fiction, I ended up walking away with devilishly bad impressions. In my experience, the litRPG genre suffers from several issues, the biggest of which are an over-reliance on nostalgia and a trend towards dense exposition, and I mean walls upon walls of text as unreadable as a bad 80’s AD&D module! But this isn’t about the subgenre as a whole, it’s about the first instalment in the Saga Online series, so let’s get into it!

I’m quoting myself now, that’s how bad ye olde ego has gotten.

The Hod King

If there’s a series that I expect to be read fifty years from now the way Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea is, for example, that would be Josiah Bancroft’s The Books of Babel. The Hod King is the third of four planned novels and it continues the adventure of Senlin and his merry band of pirates, adventurers, marauders, sky sailors, past and present and future wives, and – oh, even though I joke, I truly think it’s a brilliant work of fiction. I’m beyond excited to see it all come together with book #4. Will Bancroft stick the landing?

I reckon he just might.

You can read more about it here.

Never Die by Rob J Hayes

All throughout Never Die, Rob J. Hayes treats us readers with one badass fight after another; most of the main characters end up beating the living crap out of each other, or otherwise facing off through some convoluted challenge. The battles–and I can’t stress this enough (try as I might)–are like a shot of adrenaline through the system; if you’ve ever liked an anime battle, they will immediately feel familiar; and if you haven’t, they’ll still be cool as hell. Steel against steel, the sound of rifle fire and the smell of gunpowder, sweat and the metallic taste of blood – these are but a fraction of the images I came away with after reading this delightful novel.

Here’s my review of it.

Breaking Chaos by Ben Galley

In this final volume of the Chasing Graves trilogy, Ben Galley sees each of the myriad plotlines built over Chasing Graves and Grim Solace come to their fruition: Caltro Basalt, thief, locksmith and body-hopper extraordinaire at long last comes to embrace the role he’s tried time and again to swerve away from. Not that it’s painless. So very close to gaining his freedom, Caltro is again forced into playing different sides, listening to all their promises and trusting none of them.

The Dragon’s Banker by Scott Warren

As a reader with a bachelor’s degree in economics, I was the perfect audience for The Dragon’s Banker. The economics made sense and Warren seems to have a good grasp of how demand and supply work; he’s thought through all sorts of issues that the reader could’ve picked up on and works them in the story seamlessly and just at the right time. Some of main character Sailor Kestern’s most minor actions, at first, see great pay-off by the end of this 255-page read and in ways I didn’t necessarily expect.

My review can be found here.

The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin

While I haven’t written the essay I’ve been meaning to about the relationship between Wizard of Earthsea’s main character Ged and priestess Tenar, I think The Tombs of Atuan is nothing short of a magical sequel, which does as many interesting things about fantasy as Wizard did, in many different ways. This is a novel of equality, of taking charge of your fate, of finding friendship in the darkest hours in your life. There’s good reason why Le Guin’s Earthsea is considered a classic, a novel that’s very much shoulders above most of the genre at the time of its publication, whose messages have lost none of its relevance nearly fifty years later.

You can read my A Wizard of Earthsea: Yesteryear’s Magic is all the More Potent essay here!

This is it! My end-of-year fantasy list! Thank you to everyone for sticking around with my blog – this year has been incredibly fun in terms of books, blogging, making friends in the community. Looking forward to 2020 with you all!