Review: The Gutter Prayer

Posted: June 5, 2020 by in Books We Like (4/5 single_star) Meta: Gareth Hanrahan, Dark Fantasy, Fantasy

This one sat on my shelves for way too long. Being fair, after I first got it, I read the opening chapter and was totally turned off by what I found. Put it back on the shelf and forgot about it for a while. After seeing some buzz about it though, I decided to pick it back up. Still hated that opening chapter (a prologue that really wasn’t a proper prologue), but after that it got pretty decent and didn’t bother me again until the end of chapter 1. 🙂

THE GUTTER PRAYER is author Gareth Hanrahan’s debut novel, but he’s been writing for role-playing games for a good long while now. I recently gave some feedback to an acquaintance about her book that included a variant of the oft-quoted words about learning how to write stories: your first million words are practice. This guy has definitely got his first million words (and more) under his belt by this point, and it shows in spades.

A large portion of the book is concerned primarily with the exploits of three main characters that are all thieves but each their own person:

Carillon is an orphan that has been running away from stuff for most of her life. Her experiences are varied and sundry. So to say that she’s had an eventful life would be a bit of an understatement. She recently taken up with two other thieves, Spar and Rat, living in the slums of Guerdon, a city with a history that is complicated and detailed as well. They’ve been tasked with a job, but things go sideways fast. Explosions rip through the building they’ve infiltrated, and suddenly the halls are full of authorities. They barely escape, but something changed within Carillon along the way. It begins as an out-of-body experience that shows her the wide expanse of the island city, and gets progressively more complicated as the story continues.

Spar is a Stone Man. He’s caught the Stone plague. Like leprosy, but instead of your flesh rotting away, it solidifies into stone. The only remedy is not a remedy at all, but only slows the progress of the disease. Alkahest, given in regular doses via syringe. Spar’s father, Idge, used to be one of the ruling class of the city’s underbelly. But after his death and Spar’s sickness, Spar has fallen far down the chain indeed. And there are those that would rather not see him rise again to the top.

Rat is a ghoul, one of the many races that lives within the variegated layers of this long-lived city and the catacombs beneath it. His kind typically live in the tunnels and riddled foundations of the city, devouring the corpses of those that have died and afterward been thrown down the pits meant just for that purpose. The ghouls have their place in the power structure of the city, but Rat has tried to live his life in the light, on the streets where other, more normal, citizens of the city roam. He’s not the only one of his kind to live like this, but there are few indeed, and life has a way of eventually reminding you who you are and where you come from.

This is one of those books that I was split on, and it would have garnered a like-and-hate rating if not for the fact that it was more of a love-and-hate. There’s some really great stuff in this story, and a whole ton of stuff that really annoyed and confused and bored me. First, when the story is just the story, it’s great. The prologue that I mentioned above? Written in second-person. Ugh. Sorry, but I just hate second person. There are more than a few sections written like this, and there are also a few sections that are told from a removed-perspective that were all pretty much info-dump, and were all were tough to read.

Outside of these oddities, the writing is *really* good. Flows well, it’s full and detailed and clear, which can sometimes be difficult to do when it comes to writing in a world that is as busy and old and complicated as this world obviously is. For the first good length of the book, I was really digging on it, despite the copious amounts of world-building and sometimes lengthy excerpts about what’s happening in the city and the world around them. There’s something called a godswar raging across the world in which they live, where gods are directly and violently part of the living, breathing world. Guerdon’s history has removed most of the chaos of the gods, but things are gearing fast up for a reckoning with that past.

On an imaginative scale, I’d put this as creeping up the scale toward Mieville. Not quite as all-out bonkers as him, but definitely trending in that direction. The chaotic and bestial bodies of the Ravellers, the strangeness of the Gullheads, and the very nature of the Tallowmen had my mind constantly twisting into something exciting and new. Combine that with the history of the city and the action that’s constantly in your face, and it’s not difficult to see that this could have been a book that I absolutely loved.

The big difficulty comes in because of the characters themselves. There really isn’t a lot to them, and after about the halfway point, a bunch more POVs get thrown into the mix, and things start to go south a bit. There are jumps in the story where it felt like the author had to just give a bunch of stuff to the characters in order to keep the story moving, and I really lost all sense of motivation from any of them. Carillon wants to run away all the time. Spar kind of wants to take his rightful place where his father led from, but has some reservations. I never really understood Rat much at all. Especially after his path changes near the end of the book. They all just kind of felt like a bunch of cats, trying to get away from the author, and he kept having to wrangle them back to where they needed to be.

THE GUTTER PRAYER holds a detailed world within its pages, full of history & imagination. An impressive story that I wish had contained a little more depth

This book reads like the author is a discovery writer: he writes to learn where the story is going. There’s nothing wrong with that. Lots of authors do it that way. Stephen King does it that way for crying out loud. The one downside to doing things that way though is that, of necessity, it requires a lot of rewriting when you arrive at the end in order to go back and make everything make sense. For this one, it felt like the author didn’t do enough rewriting. Well, that, and he really needs to learn to write better characters. Defining characters isn’t his problem. Everyone is well-defined here. Portraying the character’s perspective and giving them solid motivations, however, was a huge issue.

Despite the difficulties I had with the storytelling, the book was actually pretty good, and the author is really good at leading readers along by their imagination. Worth a read, but I’d really like to see this guy do a better job on the next one. Seriously. The next one he could totally knock out of the park.

Potential. Potential. Potential.

  • Recommended Age: 17+
  • Language: Infrequent but strong and varied
  • Violence: Pretty violent and a lot of death
  • Sex: A brief threat of rape, several detailed scenes

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