Review: The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Hanrahan
Bored out there in lock down land? Looking for a dose of fantasy weirdness? You could do a lot worse than Gareth Hanrahan’s The Gutter Prayer which I picked up on a whim, once again whilst trawling for comp titles for my own work.
Being a little jaded, it didn’t sound overly original judging by the blurb, but then what does these days? Anyhew, I was hoping that the underworld/crime aspect might have some bearing on my novel, and so I decided to give it a go. It was pleasantly surprising too.
What’s It about?
Guerdon is a grim place where the ruling city council vies with the Alchemists and the Church of the Keepers for power. While the Alchemists are busy selling weapons to all sides in the Godswar – where human avatars become embodied saints for divine power – there is an influx of refugees fleeing the destruction.
Meanwhile, the Keepers (who aren’t impressed with all the foreign gods the refugees are bringing with them) are heirs to the secrets of the city’s ancient history – a key point about why their gods are ‘kept’. With the Alchemists manoeuvering to take power from the council, the city’s ancient past is about to resurface.
The story itself unfolds through three main characters who are working for the Brotherhood – basically a guild of thieves: Cari is a young thief who fled her family for a life of travel, only to return to Guerdon and become involved with Spar, another thief who is slowly dying from a plague that causes him to petrify. Spar’s father was something of a Robin Hood figure within the thieves organisation. With them is Rat, a ghoul from the tunnels below who is staving off his descent into mindlessness for as long as possible by dwelling in the city with human company.
The three are given a task to do by Heinreil, the current leader of the Brotherhood, but something goes awry and the three are caught in an explosion. This triggers visions for Cari, and although she is rescued by Spar, the pair are in turn caught by Jere, the thief taker. Meanwhile, Rat escapes but ends up descending into the bowels of the city with Aleen, a living saint of the Keepers to meet the rather H.P. Lovecraftesque ghoul equivalent of the “ancient ones”.
From here the threads of the story fan out before beginning to reweave around events old and new.
It Is Any Good?
First off, the characters in this are nicely defined, from Cari’s impulsive don’t-give-a-shit, look-before-you-leap attitude to Spar’s stoic, upright moral foundations, and through to Rat’s shifty, not-quite-human perspectives (and to be clear, ghouls are not humans). The secondary characters are good too, and you’ll no doubt come to like people such as Jere the thief-taker (who does the investigating that helps you understand the city) and Alena the living saint (who doesn’t take any shit, even from her own god).
The city itself is obviously well mapped in the author’s head, and even in the day it often feels dark and dingy. The overall tone touches on grimdark – mostly the struggle of people just to survive in a hostile world, but for all that there are terrible dark things lurking in the underworld of the city, it’s not so relentlessly nihilistic that its depressing.
There are some very cool ideas in there too: I very much liked the Tallowmen, vicious anthropomorphic candles with glowing heads that are made out of people. They’re fast, deadly and fairly impervious to being stabbed. To kill one, you must snuff out it’s wick. The Ravellers on the other hand had a feeling of being a little bit stock, but were not without menace. The Crawling Ones are also a nice touch, powerful mages made up of swarms of worms.
However, I think that ghouls are probably one of the most interesting facets of the creatures on offer because they’re not just undead, corpse eating monsters. Their place in the city’s wider ecosystem slowly comes to light and Rat’s predicament is based on the ghoul’s evolution from individual to mindless corpse eater and finally their metamorphosis into a psychic elder.
All in all, the plot comes together nicely, and there’s plenty of twists and turns as it procedes to wrap up nicely, but with the promise that this is just the beginning of the series.
What Might Put Me Off?
Big one here is the tense of the prose: it’s written in the present tense which I found distracting. This is probably Hanrahan’s natural style given he’s apparently written a large number of gaming books – I assume that means roleplaying – it very much comes across at times like a D&D narration. Not that it’s awful, but it can take a while to get into the swing of the text.
Again, pitched with the usual hyperbole on the cover of “groundbreaking” and extraordinary”. I can’t help but feel that this is an overused sales routine because while this is certainly inventive, well plotted and well executed, for long time readers you won’t be utterly blown away by the reoccuring fantasy tropes of gods, thieves, alchemists and rumminations about magic. Still, there is a certain novel interpretation that raises it above the generic.
The View From The Gutter
Hanrahan has done a great job of building an interesting world with imaginative histories and filled with vying powers. The characters are well defined and the story moves along with reasonable pace that doesn’t become boring at any point. It’s certainly worth checking out if you want a dose of adventure through the underbelly of a dark city brimming with primordial secrets.
Overall, an inventive and exciting dark fantasy, marred (for me at least) only by the authors choice of tense.
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