The Gutter Prayer. It sounds dark, and messy, and brimming with meaning. It sounds like the last whisper of the dying before darkness shrouds the eye. As far as evocative titles go, this is one of the best, and the gorgeous cover, the kind that catches the eye and demands to be gazed upon, only seals the deal that any fantasy fan should at least give this one a try. This happened to me, as I walked along the shelves of my local bookseller, and while the title and cover might set a high bar, it is the story within the pages that marks The Gutter Prayer as one of 2019’s early standouts in fantasy fiction.
This book does something I have only read in maybe one other novel in my life – the first few pages are told from the perspective of a building (in second-person narrative no less). It works remarkably well, and while the rest of the novel is set up in the third-person tense we know so well, that first bit of prose sets a tone that this book is not one to meet expectations. Through the building’s eyes we are introduced to our cadre of hero-thieves. Carillon is a young burglar and native of the dark city of Guerdon, recently returned from a long self-imposed exile and thrown into a mission with suspect motivations. With her are Rat, a ghoul ascended from the bowels of the city, and Spar, a man with an affliction that is slowly grafting stone like plates all over his body. Their simple thief job goes horribly awry, and it is not long before they are thrown into events bigger than any of them.
It is said by the sages of literature that a book needs three things – a plot, a setting, and characters. Further wisdom reveals that conflict also makes for quality reading. The Gutter Prayer nails every aspect of this quad-force, and even overlays a few of them atop one another for extra potency. The plot is grand, with implications stretching beyond the bounds of Guerdon even if the book rarely takes its reader beyond those walls. There is no portion of The Gutter Prayer that does not drive forward, with precise pacing and moments of tense action that are hard to pause. There are conspiracies within conspiracies, and character motivations that are both mysterious and engaging. The characters are fully-fleshed out, with each having their own distinct and powerful arc, and there are moments hear to break the heart. Out of many bits of truly beautiful prose, one passage stuck with me and it refers to Spar, “his heart, at least, had not turned to stone.” In a way, this is The Gutter Prayer in brief – tragic in its implications but with the simple beauty of its existence.
Part of the plot is the city itself. Guerdon comes alive in Hanrahan’s capable hands. Guerdon is old, in that way that ancient cities that have been built over top of one another for millennia are old. It’s Babylon and Rome and London all stacked deep. There is history within Guerdon that no one in the city is even aware of, whispers of dark places that only those deepest of ghouls are able to know. It is a place both alluring and terrifying, making The Gutter Prayer half-fantasy and half-horror.
Fantasy, as a rule, is strife with tropes. It is hard to find original monsters within the pages of sword and sorcery, but Hanrahan forms creatures that not even one’s nightmares can craft (though they might after you’ve read this). The Tallowmen are men made of wax, corpses reanimated to serve as the Alchemist Guild’s private army. The Ravellers, ancient demons only whispered of in legend, not only take the appearance of anyone they can kill, but when in their true form are as difficult to combat as the wind. Perhaps the most disturbing creatures are the Crawling Ones, amalgamations of corpse worms that take on the shape of a man, but whose motivations remain shrouded behind masks and who wield the power of sorcery far better than any human. Guerdon is probably not the kind of place one wants to live, or even visit, but it is fascinating when seen beyond the veil of the page.
Yet it is Guerdon our characters fight for as it quickly becomes apparent that hostile forces seek to plunge the city back into its darkest ages. The Gutter Prayer is a book full of gods, and the avatars of those gods, and the mysterious Godswar which is often mentioned and briefly looked in upon. While The Gutter Prayer itself takes place almost entirely within Guerdon, this glimpse into the greater vision that Hanrahan has for his world is an exciting prospect.
I loved this book and can’t wait to see where it goes next. Hanrahan has built a big world, with big possibilities, and there is a freshness to his creations that this genre needs. In world where I despair of ever seeing a sequel to Bloodborne, The Black Iron Legacy series provides a quality replacement (without all that pesky eldritch horror).