Book Review: The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Hanrahan
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Series: Book 1 of The Black Iron Legacy
Publisher: Orbit (January 22, 2019)
Length: 544 pages
The Gutter Prayer is a novel that got a lot of pre-publication attention; even half a year before it was due to come out, I was already hearing readers sing its praises. This was the fantasy novel all fans should be checking out in 2019, apparently—especially if your predilections run towards grimdark.
So I read it. And now I understand where all the love is coming from.
Our story, for the most part, is centered on the lives of three thieves. Cari, Spar and Rat have not known each other for long, but by the time they were called upon to work together in a secret plot hatched up by Heinreil, the city of Guerdon’s most notorious crime boss, the three of them were already…well, as thick as thieves. Spar is the son of a late gang leader, but he is also a Stone Man—the term given to someone afflicted with a degenerative disease which slowly petrifies the body and its organs, turning them hard as rock. Rat is a Ghoul, a member of a race of underground people who live in the old tunnels and crypts of the city, subsisting on the flesh of the dead. And Cari is an orphan and a drifter who feels like she owes a lot to her other two companions, who took her into their gang even though she arrived with nothing to her name.
Their job together was supposed to be quick and simple: a smash-and-grab at the city’s House of Law, where the three of them were tasked to steal an important document. But little did they know, Heinreil had other plans, and their little group was only meant to be a distraction. The night ends in disaster, with a great fire that levels a good chunk of Guerdon and claims lives. And Cari, who was injured and knocked out in the commotion, wakes up in a thieftaker’s prison with a new power in her head.
The Gutter Prayer, in many ways, is the perfect marriage of grimdark and epic fantasy. Here you will find the grittiness and cynicism one might expect from a Joe Abercrombie or Scott Lynch novel, but also the kind of unique and imaginative world-building that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Brandon Sanderson story. Clearly Gareth Hanrahan’s experience as a game designer and RPG writer has also served him well in writing his debut, for many of the ideas in here—particularly those related to creatures and theistic myths—reminded me a lot of elements from fantasy tabletop campaigns.
The world of this novel is, in a word, incredible. While most of the story is confined to Guerdon, the narrative never lets you forget that this little corner of the universe is just one piece of a greater puzzle, so not once does the setting ever feel small. The place is rich with history, its culture influenced by the diversity of its peoples and religions. The city becomes a character in its own right; from the dank gutters to the well-kept university district, every little slice of Guerdon we get to see is another side of its personality. The best sights, however, lie in its underbelly. There you find the Ghouls, hiding in the shadows. The Stone Men, who are feared and shunned. The Tallowmen, menacing wax golems that are magically bound to serve as the city’s enforcers. The Crawling Ones, digusting monstrosities made up of a wriggling mass of sentient worms. And if you’re really unlucky, you might even run afoul of a Raveller, a shapeshifting predator aligned with the Black Iron Gods.
In the face of all this originality, the characters are almost overshadowed. The perspectives of Cari, Spar, and Rat are compelling enough, but in a way, I also felt that their development took a backseat to the world-building. As protagonists, they didn’t inspire much attachment, and individually, their voices did not really stand out. In fact, I thought Hanrahan did better with his supporting characters in this regard, exploring strong personalities like Jere, Eladora, or Professor Ongent. More than once I wished a couple of these characters had gotten more attention or a bigger role. The Gutter Prayer being a debut, it also exhibits a few signs of what I feel are common new author mistakes. One is the compulsion to throw in unnecessary flourishes like random narrative shifts when it might have been better just to keep things simple.
However, the criticisms I have are minor. Ideally, I would have preferred a bit more balance between story, characters, and world-building, where one aspect isn’t disproportionately overrepresented to eclipse the others, which was partly the issue here. But overall, The Gutter Prayer was an impressive debut, one that is certain to make a lot of dark fantasy fans ecstatic. Boldly ambitious and innovative in equal measure, Hanrahan’s daring entry into the genre is guaranteed to captivate and enthrall.