ARC provided by the publisher, Orbit, in exchange for an honest review.
A truly extraordinary debut, The Gutter Prayer strikes an intense chord with its powerful worldbuilding, vivid imagery and evocative prose.
Two things about this book caught my attention. Firstly, the blurb which indicated that the main characters were three thieves (I have such a weakness for stories with thieves). And then, my co-blogger’s review which raved about the dark worldbuilding. Alright! I’ll admit that the gorgeous cover also played some part in this.
It has been quite a while since I’ve read fantasy which employed such dark elements reminiscent of horror stories. I’ll just give you these three terms – Tallowmen, Raveller and Crawling Ones. You might form an idea what these might be, but I can tell you for a fact that they are much worse than what they sounded like. A world where divine powers and alchemical advancement co-existed on an uneasy balance, the history behind the creations and eldritch horrors was dark, twisted and perversely captivating. My advice to readers is to avoid reading this book while you’re eating.
The main characters themselves were also… uncommon. Rat was a ghoul, a carrion-eating race and the original inhabitants of the city. The deep layers of history, bloodier and darker than one can possibly imagine, pushed these transformed people and their dwelling into the depths of the city. Spar is a Stone Man, cursed by an incurable plague, which slowly calcifies all living tissue until it kills. Cari had a mysterious past – a legacy – which may spell the doom of the city.
As far as I am concerned, the star of the story was the city of Guerdon itself. Hanharan wrote the city like it is a living, breathing organism that has seen generations of the good, the bad and the ugly. To describe the writing as immersive, vivid and evocative is like saying that sugar is sweet. Guerdon was a scary place to live in, and the author made sure that I feel so through every alleyway, street corner, tunnel, stairway and tower.
There’s a sick energy in the air, the sour adrenaline running through the streets. The city’s sleep has been disturbed; like some giant animal with stone sinews and nerves made of living people, Guerdon paces back and forth, testing the limits of its cage.
While the narrative can be considered to be fast-paced, the plot itself took some time to materialise cohesively. The story, written in present tense third person, was told from the perspectives of the main characters, who were pulled in myriad directions (and misdirections) following a disastrous thieving attempt at the start of the book. The mystery behind the disaster was so obfuscated that I simply had no clue what was happening until almost midway into the book. In fact, I was initially a bit concerned. In spite of the stupendous worldbuilding, I did not find myself eager to get back to reading the book after putting it down. I chalked this down to the characterisation which I found less compelling than the rest of the story. Don’t get me wrong, the characters were not badly written at all. They could have been overshadowed by the worldbuilding and the drawing out of the plot. I just didn’t care for them as much as what crazy thing is going to happen next.
Notwithstanding, the intensity really took off in the second half of the book. When the building blocks of the subplots finally came together, the pace became relentless and the narrative more engrossing. As the truths were revealed, events escalated from catastrophic to apocalyptic. I will describe the climactic sequence simply as breathtaking. Whatever prior reservations I had about this novel was alleviated by its denouement. I needed emotional resonance for a read to be amazing for me, and that was what I found lacking for a large part of this book. That is, until the final chapters and that poignant ending which was superbly satisfying.
Lastly, I have to commend the author for his writing skills. There were flashes of brilliance in his prose and occasional mitigated streams of consciousness (the Irish influence perhaps) from the characters’ POVs. Altogether Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan has developed a unique voice with his unconventional style and created something extraordinary in the realm of modern dark fantasy.