“And then the gods went mad. Not all at once. You’d hear stories of miracles out of the east, of new saints and monsters. Old ways getting swept away – but it was hard to tell what was incipient madness and what was the normal churn of events. I think the gods – our gods, in Severast – saw it first. That the sundering was an act of self-preservation. They tried to break themselves in two rather than remain part of an infected whole. Some of them didn’t manage it at all. Others did. There were two Lion Queens, for a little while. But the one from Ishmere was stronger, and without mercy.”
The Shadow Saint is a devastatingly brilliant new installment in the Black Iron Legacy series by Gareth Hanrahan. Although the initial book, The Gutter Prayer, had a few weaknesses in the character development department, these were beautifully resolved and a complete nonissue in this sequel. Eladora is the primary focus of this novel, with Cari as a side character. Several new characters are also introduced: Alic, the spy, and Terevant, a man of Haith. As the Godswar closes in on Guerdon, the goals and aims of these three will align in unexpected ways. Fans of the worldbuilding from the previous novel won’t be disappointed; the expanded scope brings in a great deal of new information and helps fill in the cracks from the previous book.
If it’s been a while since you last read The Gutter Prayer, the author has courteously uploaded a quick refresher summarizing the most important plot points on his blog. I highly recommend it. My review of The Gutter Prayer can be found here, if you’re entirely new to the series.
Eladora was a fan favorite from the first book, and I suspect many readers will be excited to know that she’s the main protagonist of the sequel. Although I had trouble connecting with her initially, I found myself engaged and drawn in to her new narrative. She struggles with her desire to help her city and the lingering fears and trauma from The Crisis. Thoughts of Miren haunt her dreams, and she feels the shadows watching her at every turn. She’s landed in Effro Kelkin’s political sphere, a man who formerly controlled Guerdon’s parliament. She is a political canvasser, specifically focused on The New City created by Spar’s sacrifice and The Gutter Miracle.
Everyone else in Guerdon’s ruling elite sees the New City as a threat to public safety, a monstrous aberration that must be excised. Kelkin’s seen it for what it is – enough new votes to topple the balance of power in parliament. He hasn’t crashed his ship on the rocks. He’s beached it on a virgin shore.
The New City, however, has a vigilante saint lurking in its depths. The Saint of Knives is well-known amongst the populace, protecting the locals from criminal syndicates and foreign saints. To some, she’s a figure of shadows and fear. To Eladora…. She’s her cousin, Carillon. Cari has much less screen time in this sequel, but I was much more interested in her nevertheless. I felt cheated by Spar’s death in The Gutter Prayer, but as it turns out, he’s not entirely gone. Spar has been transfigured, stretched, and contorted into becoming a part of the New City, nearly godlike, with Carillon as his erstwhile saint. Together, they change the very landscape to suit their needs. Unlike the true gods, however, Spar is unable to regenerate himself with souls or though any other magical means. Each expenditure of power lessens his ability to interact with the New City, and Carillon struggles with doing what is needed when the price is her friend.
Alic, or X84, or Sanhada Baradhin, or simply “the spy,” is perhaps the best embodiment of The Black Iron Legacy’s primary theme: change and transfiguration. Alic sheds identities like we should shed a coat. He lives in limbo, never fully committing to any one personality. Although he is, ostensibly, a spy for Ishmere, it quickly becomes apparent that his motivations are muddy and unclear at best. His loyalties are uncertain, but as he lives his Alic identity, he becomes more and more enmeshed into it until it’s difficult for him to know where Alic ends and the spy begins. His ward, a saint of Fate Spider, becomes important to Alic… and ultimately Alic begins to overcome and change the spy, in his own turn.
Taking on the roles of refugees from the Godswar was easy for both of them. Walk like you’re hollow. Keep your voice low, as though speaking too loud might attract the attention of some mad deity. Shudder when the weather changes, when light breaks through the clouds, when certain noises are too loud, too charged with significance. Flinch at portents. The man whose name is not Sanhada Baradhin and the boy who didn’t have a name arrived on board the steamer a week ago with bowed heads, shuffling up the gangplank with a crowd of other survivors.
What we see of Ishmere, largely through Alic, is horrifying. Ishmere’s pantheon is currently set to win the Godswar; to the lion-headed goddess, Pesh, the Lion Queen, war is holy. War is endless, To conquer in war is her only purpose, and she will fulfill it at all costs. Every soul that dies on the battlefield goes to her, grows her, expands her. With support of the Kraken, Cloud Mother, and the rest of the pantheon… the Kept Gods of Guerdon, starved of soul-stuff and with only a handful of saints to their name, have little hope of defending their shores.
The goddess Pesh, Lion Queen, war-goddess of the Ishmeric pantheon – or rather her avatar, made from Captain Isigi – purrs in satisfaction and settles back onto her seat. The spy notes without alarm that the simple wooden chair is now a throne of skulls, that the trestle table has become a blood-soaked altar. The hearts begin to beat again, squirting jets of crimson across the floor. The file folder, though, is still a file folder. Isigi – or is the overlapping entity in front of him more Pesh than Isigi now? – picks it up, extends a claw and slices through the metal seal holding it shut. The spy shudders at the grace of the movement, knowing that those selfsame claws recently tore a half-mile rent in the hillside below. Isigi removes the papers, reviews them in silence. The tent reverberates with her divine breath, which smells of meat and sandalwood. Everything comes down to this.
Through Terevant, brother to the Erevesic, we see a glimpse of the other side of the Godswar. Haith has been the primary opponent of Ishmere thus far, holding the front lines. Their god of death isn’t exactly present in the same way as Ishmere’s pantheon, but the undead Vigilant who hold front lines of the war are existence enough. In Ishmere, you’re no one one until you’re dead, after all. The great houses hold phylacteries, such as the Sword Erevesic, that allow, once again, a soul to be transfigured into a piece of a greater whole upon death. Terevant is still alive, and is very much hoping to remain that way. The political situation in Guerdon is fraught with danger for him, as his brother and his brother’s wife pull him in opposing directions.
The biggest and most important change between The Shadow Saint and the Gutter prayer lies in the characters. Here, the characters feel less like they exist to support and a plot, and more like agents who create the plot as their actions and decisions impact the world around them. They all interweave beautifully, creating an intricate web of cause and effect that I felt was missing in the first book. The worldbuilding, which previously became a bit of an infodump at times, now happens organically through the knowledge and experiences of the characters. Terevant and Alic, in particular, showcase Guerdon from an outsider’s perspective. To them, The Crisis was distant history; they weren’t a part of it like Cari and Eladora. It’s a fresh, new perspective on the city as it currently exists vs the perspective of those who have lived through its most recent incarnation.
I’ll confess, I was slightly hesitant when I picked up this book based on my experience with The Gutter Prayer; I was worried that it would drag, that the hefty page count would feel slow. Instead, I found myself anxious to pick up the book each time I had to set it down, constantly on the edge of my seat, and unable to wait to find out what the characters would do next. The final third of the book, in particular, had me curious and guessing. There was a small portion in the middle that felt a little slow, but it paid off in the end. Hanrahan’s growth as a writer is deeply impressive, and I am eagerly awaiting the next installment in The Black Iron Legacy.