Review: The Gutter Prayer – A Dark, Imaginative Debut

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Title: The Gutter Prayer (The Black Iron Legacy 1)
Author: Gareth Hanrahan
Publisher: Orbit
Release Date: January 17th, 2018
Genre(s): Epic Fantasy, Steampunk
Subjects and Themes: Deities
Page Count: 544

Rating: 8.0/10

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The city of Guerdon stands eternal. A refuge from the war that rages beyond its borders. But in the ancient tunnels deep beneath its streets, a malevolent power has begun to stir.

The fate of the city rests in the hands of three thieves. They alone stand against the coming darkness. As conspiracies unfold and secrets are revealed, their friendship will be tested to the limit. If they fail, all will be lost and the streets of Guerdon will run with blood.

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There has been a great buzz about The Gutter Prayer and the slew of blurbs from well-respected authors and reviewers praising its name should tell you that this is, in many ways, a pretty damn great debut.

And I can tell you the same thing…with some caveats.

Let’s talk about the worldbuilding first, because that’s hands-down the book’s biggest strength.

I wrote in my notes that the way that Hanrahan presents his world–like the origin of the Ghouls and Stone Plague–reminds me a lot of video games. As in, they’re presented in succinct and easily digestible chunks while still being interesting and attention-grabbing (and later I found out that the author writes gaming books, so that was an “Aha” moment). This has the downside of being a little info-dumpy in places, but considering how interesting the world is, I didn’t really mind it.

Comparisons to China Mieville has been made and for good reason. He’s one of the best when it comes to city building and transforming locations into living, breathing characters. And The Gutter Prayer has that in spades.

But I think this world is a little more…Lovecraftian than Mieville’s work (and not just because of the tentacles). And for that reason, it really, really reminds me of the Gothic browser game known as Fallen London.

And you have no idea how ecstatic that makes me.

I won’t get into the details of the game (that’s for another day), but one of the million things I adore about Fallen London (and its spinoffs) is its total embrace of the weird, the foreign, and the terrifying. Various creatures roam the streets and underbellies of its city and while some might see you as their noonday snack, others just want to go about their lives in peace. There’s something new and exciting waiting for you around every corner and the city is just begging you to explore it all.

The same thing applies here. We have the Tallowmen, humanoid wax creations made from the remnants of condemned criminals that are now used as hunting dogs for criminals (and yes, they have a wick running through them–that’s how they come “alive”); worm-colonies that hire themselves out as sorcerer mercenaries; and on and on.

And we get all these different, colourful districts and their rich history and colourful inhabitants–some friendly, others distinctly murdery, and nearly all of them strange and fascinating.

I fucking adore the imagination of it all.

As for the plot, the main one takes a while to materialize (which can be frustrating) but when it does, it begins to resemble the best of Robert Bennett Jackson’s Divine Cities trilogy–warring gods, trapped gods, and mortals who would kill or free them to further their own agenda.

Now, here comes the caveats. My problem with loud and rich worldbuilding is when the characters aren’t quite as loud and rich enough, so the former ends up drowning them out. This is fine in the early stages of a story–everything is new and shiny and we’re gawking at everything like overexcited tourists–but after a certain point it starts to resemble a lonely stroll through an art museum.

This isn’t to say the characters aren’t interesting–quite the opposite, really!

There are three main characters the story revolves around:

Spar is the leader of the trio and the son of the man who’s founded the Brotherhood–a group of thieves who were meant to be the Robin Hoods of the city, a beacon of hope for the common folk–and also a victim of the Stone Plague, an incurable disease that slowly turns the infected into stone. And he just happens to be my favourite (“The idealistic character with an unbending sense of loyalty who’s also tragically dying is your favourite? Why am I not surprised?”)

Rat is a young ghoul who feeds on the carcasses of the dead.

Cari is the only human/non-infected of the group. She’s left Guerdon many years ago and never looked back. But now she is back and some…disconcerting things are happening with her.

So these are characters with diverse backstories and I enjoyed getting to know them and the lore they bring with them, but I feel like they never developed beyond the surface-level of interesting. Spar in particular never quite reached the potential that I think he has.

And I think the following two points contribute to that:

  1. The three characters spend half of the story separated from each other (and Spar spends a good chunk of that stuck alone in a cell), so we never really get a good sense of their dynamic.
  2. Hanrahan doesn’t have the same knack for emotional character-driven scenes as he does with city building. There are moments, especially near the end of the story, that could have been rousing and vindicating but are curiously glossed over. Tragedies come and go in a blink, leaving you feeling detached and going, “Wait, what?”

All in all, though, Guerdon is a joy to experience and the problems with meandering plot and characters are things that can definitely be ironed out in the sequel. Gareth Hanrahan has stormed into the genre with a deceptively complex debut that’s chock full of imagination, and it sets up a strong foundation for what I hope will be an equally strong trilogy.

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Review copy provided by the publisher via Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

21 thoughts on “Review: The Gutter Prayer – A Dark, Imaginative Debut

  1. Tammy says:

    Wonderful review, Kathy! I’m in the home stretch and hope to have my review up this weekend. I agree with everything you’ve said, although I’m not a gamer so I didn’t get those references. But China Mieville is the first comparison that popped into my head, as well as Lovecraft!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Vera says:

    Ha! I have a feeling Spar would be my favourite character as well, I tend to fall for tragic characters pretty reliably. 😊

    I keep on telling myself to read books from this genre as it’s still fairly new to me. I do love an amazing world building – I love it when an author’s imagination amazes me. 😊 Making a note to check either this book or some of Mieville’s books out. Great review Kathy!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky says:

      When I first read that he’s dying from an incurable disease, my brain was like, “Oh no, I’m gonna fall for this one, aren’t I?” 😛

      Oh my god, you should so check out China Mieville’s books, Vera! They’re really…weird but so atmospheric and immersive. Perdido Street Station is a good start–though I hope you’re not turned off by insect characters… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      • Vera says:

        Ha ha, that would be me too!

        This is so weird, the book I want to write has a beetle as a main character. I need to check Perdido Street Station out ASAP! Thanks Kathy! 😊

        Like

  3. waytoofantasy says:

    Really great review! I have heard so many great things. Your description of it being like a stroll through a museum has me intrigued because I have had that exact reading experience with another book before (The Night Circus). For some reason this is the first thing that has actually made me interested in checking this out! Thanks for the review!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. maddalena@spaceandsorcery says:

    So I’m not the only one to have felt some China Mieville “vibes” while reading this book… 😉
    There is a big difference, though: while in the end New Crobuzon felt like a city beyond the brink of decay, Guerdon transmits a more lively and exciting feeling, a place in the throes of transformation rather than degeneration. And I hope the sequel will fulfill these promises.
    Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky says:

      “Place in the throes of transformation rather than degeneration” I…I love that so much, that’s such a perfect description! Guerdon definitely feels like a less-developed cousin (in terms of industrialization) to New Crobuzon, but one with more potential.

      Now I want to see a contrast/comparison essay on the two cities. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

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