The Good: A line-up of the usual suspects with a plot as thick as thieves, complete with Warcraftian worldbuilding and Lovecraftian lore, making for a truly unique and at times unusual (and this is a good thing!) debut.
The Bad: Not so much a trigger warning, but this will NOT be for everyone. There are multiple point of view characters, perspectives and tenses. The Gutter Prayer isn’t going to please everyone, nor will it polarise readers. If you don’t like it you’ll leave it before you get too far in, but if you do like it at the start you’ll love it by the end (I certainly did).
The Ugly Truth: The Gutter Prayer is a mercurial masterpiece. It’s not so much ‘ground-breaking’ as it is the author treating the fantasy genre and all of its staples as a ‘sandbox’ (read: sandbox MMO) and building a castle with his hands as opposed to using the bucket approach. The only thing greater than its ambitions as a debut is its accomplished performance and the awe-inspiring imagination that’s gone into it, which surely marks Gareth Hanrahan as one to watch.
Review: From the very first page I realised that The Gutter Prayer was something special.
Glancing at the cover and casting an eye over the blurb, you’d be forgiven for thinking this is your usual heist story, a high-octane and hi-jinx helter-skelter of tricks and treats. But as the story unfolds, and the double-crosses lead to dead-ends and ever increasing dread and dire consequence, the conspiracy afoot would make any curtain-twitcher pulled down the blinds to fit steel bars to their windows.
Welcome to Guerdon. A city of cities, built upon the brick and block of those cities and civilisations before it. And like its construction, its citizens stand on the shoulders of those beneath them, those ‘low lifes’ whose only crime (or at least, their first crime) was to be born into a lower rank than the rich and the ruthless above them. Politicians and priesthoods, alchemists and ancient forces, sorcerers and saints, thieves and Tallowmen, golems and ghouls, Guerdon’s streets are a hive of scum and villainy that would spit out any chosen-one farmboy (or girl!). Whilst the godswar rages far from its walls, the battle for control of the city begins with a bang as three young thieves, a human, a ghoul and a stoneman, find themselves caught in the crossfire of a conspiracy that threatens not just Guerdon, but the outcome of the war, and the rest of the world.
I genuinely don’t know where to start with this one. Admittedly, this is in part because there is SO MUCH I can say about The Gutter Prayer (but don’t have the words to do it justice) but also because there is SO MUCH to say about the Gutter Prayer. Yes, you read that right. So much I can say vs so much to say.
Bear with me whilst I try and collect my thoughts.
Let’s start with the style, as this is the first thing that struck me dumb. Though, admittedly, looking back, I was more dumbstruck than awestruck when I started the book, as the opening scene really threw me, but I hung on and I’m really glad that I did.
Hanrahan’s voice – and the style of this book – is elementary. Mercurial even. I remember the first time that I read Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, and found myself asking ‘but, but, this isn’t what I’m used to?’ I did a similar thing with Anna Smith Spark’s ‘The Court of Broken Knives’. Neither book was missing something – they were doing things differently and I LOVED IT once I learnt to listen to what the book was telling me. And this is what Hanrahan does best. Who needs limited perspectives and tenses when you can use any and all of them whenever you want to? To limit yourself to one is to restrict yourself, and the story. Rather, The Gutter Prayer unshackles itself from the conventional and flies free in the face of fancy and fantasy. Hanrahan isn’t telling the story of the Blade Itself, or The Court of Broken Knives. He’s telling the story of The Gutter Prayer, HIS STORY, however he wants to – and it’s astounding.
The cast takes the usual suspects and rips the rug out from underneath them, bundles them up in it, beats them black and blue, and throws them in the deep end from the get go. Our heroes are the unlikely ‘who’s who?’ from the underfoot if not underworld of society: Carillion Thay, a human thief relatively new to the city; Spar, a local lowborn with lofty ideals above the station of a criminal, let alone one afflicted with the curse of the stonemen; and Rat, another rogue, but this time a ghoul, who shirks the company of his own kind in favour of the surface, and the living. Beyond these three there is a whole host of characters who wouldn’t look out of place in a waxwork museum of celebrities and calamities.
Speaking of calamities, I NEED to ramble on a moment about the races in this book. Guerdon inhabits the same DnD’esque ‘realm’ of monsters, myth and mayhem as Nicholas Eames. ‘A girl, a ghoul and a golem walk into a bar,’ might be the opening line of a joke in an Eames’ Grandual (where the Band books are set) but in Guerdon it’s just another day with a ‘y’ in it.
From the ghouls with their hoofs and horns and casual cannibalism, to the stonemen whose cancerous calcification means that their bodies, bones and even their organs will turn to stone. I mentioned waxwork above, and one of the first creatures introduced are the Tallowmen, wax men and women whose previous beings and bodies were melted down and put back together in a mould, fitter, faster and fiercer than before, with a living flame that burns inside them on a wick. Next up, the Crawling Ones. I’m not going to go into details on these ones, but its safe to say the name is apt. Beyond these there are Ravellers, Gullheads, the Kept Gods, the Black Iron Gods, and something called a Fever Knight…
And all of this is set (apart from a brief interlude) within/beneath the walls of Guerdon, which in itself is as vibrant as its inhabitants. It’s more than just your average fantasy city setting, with elements of steampunk.
It’s safe to say that this is a BUSY book, and I haven’t really touched upon the plot. Every page there is something or someone knew, and trying to keep track of everything going on is a task in itself. But that’s the point, or at least that’s my opinion. Just sit back and enjoy the ride, because once it gets going you’ll be clinging on for dear life.
There are a few themes that run throughout; the usual power of friendship, what it means to be a hero, and what it means to create/be a part of/leave a legacy. I’m not sure whether one aspect I picked up on could be called a theme, but I found it wonderfully intriguing: the weaponization of an older religion to further the pursuits of the modern ‘faiths’ (power, wealth, influence). I’ll say no more on this, but it’s an uncomfortable truth and I for one would love to hear what other readers think about this.
I am REALLY rambling now, so I’ll try and wrap up with a few final takeaways. The authors who have blurbed this booked tell you as much about this book as the kudos they’ve given. On the back of the ARC I received from Orbit (thank you) the recommendations come from Peter Mclean (for the urban fantasy feel and the grimdark/heart), Anna Smith Spark ( for her unique voice) and Michael R Fletcher (for the dark fantasy and wild imagination). When I started reading this I found myself asking: ‘this is a debut? THIS? A DEBUT?’ Having now finished it, I find myself saying: ‘THIS is a debut!’
*Also, as part of this review, I’d like to just say that the cover artist, Richard Anderson, is KILLING IT with covers these days. I’ve been a fan of his since the years of Guild Wars, and long before The Kings of the Wyld was released, his artwork had me raving about it. And with the cover of Gutter Prayer, Richard Anderson nails it!