The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Hanrahan (The Black Iron Legacy #1)

I received an uncorrected bound proof copy of The Gutter Prayer in exchange for an honest review. I would like to thank Gareth Hanrahan and Orbit Books for the opportunity.

Hanrahan's highly anticipated fantasy debut is a real breath of fresh air. We follow three thieves who are affiliated with the underground Brotherhood. The gang's leader - Henreil - orders Carillon, Spar and Rat to steal some documentation from the House of Law. Little did the ensemble know that the master of the thieves guild had other plans that evening involving this building and another group of thieves. The three thieves are betrayed, the House of Law - one of the cities finest monuments - burns to the ground, and the consequences are dire. In the aftermath, our trio decides to deal out revenge but in doing so uncover numerous conspiracies, dark truths, and learn often unwanted knowledge about the Gods of this world. Mixing that with visions, hallucinations, and out-of-body experiences that Carillion starts witnessing and Spar's need for a drug Alkahest as he is slowly petrifying since being diagnosed with the stone plague equals an exciting and ambitious prospect from the very start. 

At approximately 510 pages Hanrahan composes a unique, stimulating and three-dimensional hauntingly dark fantasy world. The Gutter Prayer is low fantasy at it's finest. I'm not sure if it was the author's intention yet I read this as if it was set in a Victorian-inspired city where all of the action takes place. The complex, labyrinthine city of Guerdon includes trains, canals, main roads, thieves passages, underground warrens, a university town and many houses of religion. 

In a fantasy world where grimdark seems to be the most popular sub-genre at the moment, I can confirm that fans of the said genre will find a great amount to enjoy here. That being said, it doesn't fit exactly under that specification. For however dark, extreme and violent sections may be, The Gutter Prayer also oozes an aura of heart and hope mainly led by the three intriguing and intricately developed but likable main characters. Cari is a thief who is the daughter of a wealthy family and has started having unspeakably strange visions when bells ring. Rat is a Ghoul, that is like a concoction of a human and a wolf and finally, Spar is the son of the former master of the thieves guild who is infected by the stone-plague. The team have an amazing comradeship and really care for each other and that is present throughout the whole narrative.

I adore fantasy stories that flaunt originality, especially when the author creates new creatures, races, and Gods that have not been featured in other books beforehand. Like Malazan where Erikson created Tiste Andii, K'Chain Che'Malle amongst others - here we have Tallowmen, Gullheads, Ravellers, and Saints. Three of these creatures are utterly terrifying and you wouldn't want to cross their paths in the small damp alleyways of Guerdon at nighttime.  

One of my favourite aspect of The Gutter Prayer was the way that Cari's out-of-body experiences and visions were written. Unfortunately, in the past, I've suffered from mental health, hallucinations, visions, and out-of-body experiences and Cari's experiences rang completely true and were presented brilliantly. I had a personal connection with these segments and it was like reading about someone who has felt the same sort of emotions I had previously. Her suffering, confusion but also the way her eyes are opened to hidden details about the city and its inhabitants were really enlightening.  

It took me about one-hundred-pages to get completely engrossed in this novel but at that point when events start to get a bit more complex I was engrossed and couldn't put the book down. The last one-hundred-and-fifty-page were so thrilling that my brain had to work expertly hard to keep up with the pace that my eyes were making it read the words! The Gutter Prayer features a skilfully crafted world, with masterful drama, expert dialogue, brilliant characters, and an ending I did not see coming. The best debut release of 2019? Perhaps. A book that every fantasy fan should read? Absolutely.

James Tivendale - 9.3/10

You know things aren’t going to plan when you’re in the middle of a robbery and the building blows up around you, alchemical fire turning what was already a pretty difficult job into complete chaos, threatening a fiery death, and possibly getting you arrested to boot. If that was part of the game plan, nobody told Cari, Spar, or Rat. It’s almost like no-one cared whether they lived or died. Or if they got caught… Yet the man who sent them isn’t the kind of whom you ask hard questions, unless you want blade-sharp answers. That or worse, an unfriendly visit from the Fever Knight. But now they’re being sought by all kinds of interested parties, from the Brotherhood to the Watch, from hidden gods to mythical monsters, and they’re running low on people to trust. They’ve been pitched into the middle of an ongoing battle with no idea of the rules, or even who’s playing, and they desperately need to find out what’s going on. With THIS IS NOT THE LAST chillingly painted at the scene of the explosion, it seems like there’s way more destruction to come - and these three stand right at its heart, whether they like it or not. Their choices are going to change the world, so they better be good ones… 

To say this book is imaginative is to undersell it, the author’s inventiveness is showcased on every page, from the ghoul inhabited depths below the city to the dirty streets and dirtier politics of the streets above. It’s a thoroughly lived in place, each new generation of occupation layered on the remains of the past, creating a stratified history and material culture that’s only partly visible. Guerdon has the feel of an old, old city, the kind that’s as much a character as those who live there. Its secrets sit just out of sight, snapping into focus only when you look deeper. It works as much for the plot and the characters as it does for the worldbuilding. The expected path is rarely taken and it brings some thrilling challenges for the reader. So you’re putting a ghoul who eats rotting human flesh as a main character? Interesting… I like where this is going. Nobody is who you expect them to be, flawed at the very least, and often much worse than that. There’s a seedy immorality to it all, superbly contrasted by the bonds of friendship between the main three. Their willingness to fight for each other is what keeps this from being as grim as it might seem at first glance, in their relationship is enough hope and trust and faithfulness to counter the dark.

Even so, the writing sometimes had a jerkiness, an indecisiveness, a fumbling in the movement from scene to scene that nullified the overall impact. In flicking from one to the next, sometimes repeating the same moment from another character angle, going for the quick shock and terse explanation, any emotional effect was lost. People died at the end, but they did so almost by the wayside, an oops-they’re-gone shrug of the shoulders and it’s the End. Perhaps this reflected the fleeting nature of human experience when measured against the weighty, layered past of the city itself, but it fed into my general lack of feeling for anyone involved. I just didn’t really care who was going to come through it and when some of them didn’t, I barely noticed. I had to go back and reread a few bits because I was wondering about people who were already dead. In all honesty, I was skimming by this point, the prioritisation of action over feeling (and maybe over cohesion too) meant I’d lost my connection to the story. For all the imagination and creativity on display here, I already know I won’t be rereading the book. These are not characters to love and come back to. They’re interesting but distant. Nevertheless, this does nothing to undermine my admiration of the author’s talent in creating something original. Definitely one to try for yourself.

ARC via Netgalley

Emma Davis - 8/10

Most would agree that change is one of the essential ingredients of any good story. Character growth and development are just as important to a story as how it begins and ends. In many cases, the most compelling stories feature characters and environments that experience massive transformations that redefine everything we knew or will know. Gareth Hanrahan’s debut novel The Gutter Prayer, book one of the Black Iron Legacy series, is one such story. It is an imaginative tale of changing identities, nightmarish terrors, and the crushing responsibilities of power, and one of the more unconventional dark fantasies I’ve read.

One theme that elevates this story is how the many physical and spiritual changes manifest themselves in interesting ways. While our three main protagonists all undergo extensive changes throughout the story, the environment itself is subject of some of the most interesting narrative choices. The animate and inanimate alike are given points of view; the prologue is written in second-person, addressing and identifying ‘you’ as a city building. This initially feels both innovative and off-putting, but its intention is revealed over time and ends up being quite brilliant. The city of Guerdon is just as an important character as our three protagonists; there are untold networks of tunnels full of alchemical and magical life forces that extend far below the city’s surface. We also spend time learning about landmarks across the sprawling metropolis that are intrinsic to the plot and tightly woven into the overarching story. In a world where warring immortals use demi-human avatars to channel the power of the gods, it seems justifiable to include the setting itself as a driving agent of change and growth.

The story takes place entirely within the city limits of Guerdon, a neutral territory that sells alchemical weapons to both sides of the nearby Gods War. The war has yet to come to the shores of Guerdon, and the Alchemists Guild is reaping a fortune in the interim. While the Alchemists Guild holds great power in the city, another faction has been gaining influence over the past few decades: The Brotherhood of Thieves. Carillon Thay is a one such thief who is haunted by painful visions that pull her mind into an omni-present state. (The vivid descriptions of these episodes are some of my favorite passages in the novel.) Spar is the son of the former leader of the Brotherhood, driven by a responsibility to provide for the city’s less fortunate, yet is dying from an incurable disease that turns his skin into stone. Rat is a ghoul, a half-feral being who lives on the surface but feels the pull of joining his elders in the depths of the warrens far beneath the city. We first meet these three friends on a thieving mission that goes horribly awry, and the story takes off and never looks back. 

There are some memorable side characters, notably Aleena, a foul-mouthed Saint of the local Keeper gods, tasked with defending her city from the various horrors that threaten it. There’s also Jere the Thief-Taker, a former soldier-turned-bounty-hunter with a penchant for trouble, and Eladora, a student historian who is pulled into events far outside her comfort zone. But the book really shines when it introduces us to the many macabre and disquieting creatures that populate the city. The Tallowmen are deadly wax automatons with a burning spinal wick, built from human remains, serving as the city’s specialized police force. The Creeping Ones are sorcerous beings made up of thousands of soul-hungry white worms that arrange themselves into humanoid forms. The Ravellers are tentacled black membranes that act as extensions of an evil, dormant race of gods, driven to murder and sacrifice for their masters’ freedom. It’s all very detailed and very chilling. Hanrahan is not afraid to ‘go there’ in terms of surprising the reader with unpredictable and shocking moments of violence and dread. 

Many aspects of this book appealed to me. Notably, one side character is a collector of leftover bits of alchemical waste that’s repackaged and sold on the black market, which is strongly reminiscent of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s sci-fi classic Roadside Picnic. Another interesting detail is a theory on the various gods represented in the book, that they are all “self-sustaining magical constructs… spells that keep going. Like waterwheels powered by the passage of souls, maybe.” Most of all, I particularly enjoyed how the main characters are all tempted by evil, and we experience their thought process of why it might be the more attractive path. In some books, the heroes don’t think twice about taking the moral high ground. Here, we are privy to them considering going to the dark side, the path of least resistance, weighing their chances of success and survival, and attempting to justify their decisions. It’s refreshing, and in my eyes, more realistic. Perhaps that says something more about me than the characters in the story, which I appreciate even more. 

I did have a couple of minor issues with the story. There are a couple of instances when an antagonist reveals a long-winded master plan, which felt more than a bit supervillainy. There were some atonal mustache-twirling exposition dumps by more than one character that felt very out of place. Coming from one person I can accept as a character flaw, but two or more characters felt like the explanations were shoehorned in instead of unfolding organically. And while I grew to enjoy our main cast of heroes, I felt that their characterizations weren’t particularly deep. Since this is mainly a plot-driven story, I never felt like I grew close to the cast beyond some surface level character traits. 

I will absolutely be continuing this series, so I hope those aspects will be improved upon in the next volume. The final line of the epilogue is a killer one, and I’ll no doubt be mulling over its implications until book two arrives. The Gutter Prayer is an exceptional dark fantasy debut with imaginative approaches to creature-building, religious warfare, and urban decay. It’s a fantastic introduction to the mind of Gareth Hanrahan and will likely make it to many of 2019’s lists of the year’s best. 

ARC via NetGalley

Adam Weller - 8.4 / 10

9/10 The best debut release of 2019? Perhaps. A book that every fantasy fan should read? Absolutely.

Reviews by and Emma Davis and Adam Weller

The Gutter Prayer reader reviews

8.6/10 from 1 reviews

All Gareth Hanrahan Reviews