The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Hanrahan

Black iron gods squat on impossible towers, howling for worship, for offerings to their terrible glory. Robed priests, elbow-deep in the blood of sacrifices, red knives cutting out the hearts of their enemies to be thrown on burning braziers. The smoke from a million burning hearts hangs over Guerdon like a ruddy pall. Death fuels death. A woman kneels before these idols, a high priestess, beautiful and terrible. She clasps a medallion in her red-stained hands, and it blooms with a ghastly light, a colourless fire. Transfigured in the bloodshed, made divine by slaughter, Carillon recognises herself.

The Gutter Prayer is a somewhat challenging review for me. On one hand, there were tons of things about this book that I adored. The city of Guerdon has been lovingly, hauntingly crafted. Ghouls roam the streets and rule the crypts, slowly growing fat on the souls of the dead, guarding the gates that hold back a tide of shapeless horrors. The Crawling Ones create strange half-lifes for those who choose to give themselves over to the worms. The Stone Men battle against their plague every day, fighting calcification and seeking one more – just one more! – shot of alkahest to keep the stone at bay. And yet, despite all this… it didn’t quite click. I struggled to connect to the characters, rendering major climaxes and gut punches emotionless. 

The cast’s focus felt a little spread thin across the multiple point of view characters. Carillon, the character we’re first introduced to, initially feels like the person you’ll end up rooting for and following most closely; and such, the others begin to feel a little like distractions, especially when their storylines are abruptly cut short or altered to a degree that they no longer feel like the same character at all (albeit in a way that narratively makes sense). I was immediately intrigued by Cari, with her mysterious past and the strange, cursed visions that come upon her. When she sees a young priest unraveled and destroyed by a beast that steals his face, I was absolutely on board with where this story was going. She’s determined, yet shaped by the traumas she’s faced on the streets. She struggles to make the right choices. But somehow, I just couldn’t ever quite care about her properly. 

He turns to the girl to beg her name, but she’s not there anymore. She’s unfolded like a flower, all her beauty and wealth peeling away, unravelling, leaving only a tangle of chaos and hunger. He’s unravelling, too, strips of his skin detaching painlessly from his arm, his face, to fall into the whirling vortex of the Raveller. Nerves, muscle, bone follow, threads of cassock, too, glittering cloth-of-gold merging into the whirling chaos that is all that remains of the dress she wore. The unravelling reaches his torso, his head. For an instant, his vision is impossibly elongated as she devours his eyes.

While Spar, Cari’s friend and a fellow thief, has a more compelling storyline in some senses, said storyline ultimately ends as a sideline. Spar suffers from the stone plague, which causes his skin to calcify until he’s a prisoner in his own body. It was clear from the start that the revolution his father wanted for the Brotherhood of thieves was never going to be the main challenge in the book. I was interested and engaged, but again, emotionally distant due to this. I wanted him to succeed, but in a very detached sort of way. 

Alkahest, a strong dose of blessed, life-giving, stone-denying alkahest. He will move again. He’s not all stone yet. He’s not all gone. Spar weeps with gratitude, but he’s too tired to speak or to move. He can feel the alkahest seeping through his veins, pushing back the paralysis. For once, the Stone Man can rest and be still. Easiest, now, is to close eyes that are no longer frozen open, and be lulled into sleep by his friend’s soft babbling …

The other main characters, Eladora (Cari’s cousin), Rat (a Ghoul), and Jere (a thief-taker) suffer from similar issues. They’re all interesting characters who I was consistently excited to learn more about, but at the end of the day I just didn’t really care what happened to them. 

Fortunately, this book’s lush, eery worldbuilding overshadowed these character issues for me. Guerdon glows in the light of the Tallowmen and their horrifically stretched and melted visages. There were a thousand little details that had me on the edge of my seat wanting more and more. I felt like I walked through the city, I felt like I could hear the bells chiming and smell the alchemical fires burning. 

This Tallowman is made from a young girl, younger than Cari, but grotesquely stretched to fill the six-foot-six mould used to make the monsters. The wick’s light shines through her fang-like teeth as she examines Ongent’s pass. Cari gives the creature a wide berth—the monsters turn violent when they feel trapped.

As the plot winds through the city and its substrata, I couldn’t wait to make yet more connections. Discovering who was in league with who, deciphering which of the various parties was the real villain of the novel (the priests? the alchemists? the government?), and following the city’s saints as they half-commune and half-rebel against their gods was consistently engaging. Even if I couldn’t connect to characters like Rat on a personal level, watching him fight against the Ghoul’s life cycle and avoid descent into a feral, corpse-eating beast was just plain interesting. It all connected and related back to the city’s economic systems, the religious practices, and even the history. 

Rat, in a tunnel. Ghouls can see the dark, see all the colours beyond black. The rich variations of shadow, the subtle shades of empty tunnel, and the yawning, blazing, darkness of the deep places below. There’s more to Guerdon below than above, in cellars and passageways and dungeons and sewers, in the buried forgotten pasts of the city, and all its unseen arteries and bowels, and more below the city than its inhabitants can imagine. The surface folk are insects crawling on skin.

The Gutter Prayer is a book I highly recommend for fans of either New Weird, secondary-world weird urban-ish fantasy, or for fans of intense worldbuilding. Hanrahan may not have succeeded at making me care about his characters, but he sure as hell got me to care about his world and the structures within it. I can’t wait to learn more about Guerdon and the Godswar that rages outside it in the next book, The Shadow Saint. 

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4 thoughts on “The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Hanrahan

  1. I just finished this book and have some similar feelings. I loved the world building but the characters (including the baddies) could have used more depth. I was a little surprised that he let harm come to some of them and it made it uncertain who would survive so I liked that. But world building and story pulled the weight here I think.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wasn’t a huge fan of that aspect – it made it even harder for me to connect with the characters. When I don’t know if a character is going to make it to the end or not, I tend to be less invested than when I know they’re going to be a persistent presence in the story.

      Liked by 1 person

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