I saw The Gutter Prayer being hyped as the big fantasy release for 2019, so I used my magic powers (Tomte pictures) to talk my way into a proof to read. I’m so glad I got to read this early, as I think it’s really something special. Weird, but special.
Book: The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Hanrahan
Read before: No
Ownership: Proof copy sent by Orbit for fair review. All opinions my own.
Release date: 17th January 2019. Amazon affiliate link here.
This book, guys. This book is so hard to describe! I couldn’t even work out what to rate it – I had to let my thoughts percolate for about six hours after finishing it before it all came together for me. It’s a book that will divide readers into thinking it’s either completely genius or completely mad – but for those willing to put in the mental legwork, I think it really, really pays off.
So, that mental legwork – essentially, the first 100 pages or so are like wrestling with fragments of a dream as the various viewpoint characters are introduced, the city of Guerdon is described, the politics are sketched, and the whole world is built around you. This is really interesting for a book which starts in medias res (with a heist gone wrong and a massive explosion) – and for me, the slow pace and multitude of things to take in were punishing. This world is enormous, and enormously intricate. I put the book down and picked it back up again four or five times over the last couple of weeks – it was just hard work. Those of you who know me well know I read at around 150-200 pages per hour. This book, at 514 pages, should have taken me less than 3 hours to read – but it took more than double that. There is so much information here!
That being said, there does come a point at which everything clicks, and suddenly everything makes sense. The wealth of information and viewpoints give you this panoramic view of the city, almost as if you’ve grown up there – you might never have experienced some things, like the political warfare or the catacombs under the city, but you know to fear it. There is so much history that there’s no doubt in my mind that you could tell a story as epic as this one about any given day in the city’s lifetime. This is a book where the setting is central, almost alive. The city is the book. The characters are almost secondary in this tangled beast of a city-world. Limiting the action to this very small, contained space is very clever – there’s a huge war between gods being waged pretty much everywhere else, so Guerdon is kind of self-sufficient, but in a claustrophobic, dangerous way. It’s very powerful.
Ostensibly, we have three main characters: Cari, a runaway noble girl turned thief; Spar, a regular thief turned part-stone by a disease; and Rat, a flesh-eating ghoul turned thief. These three thieves are dealing with the aftermath of a job gone wrong – very wrong, with an enormous explosion – when Cari starts experiencing weird visions. But they aren’t the sole focus of the story, and there are many other players in this game. Jere Taphson, the thief-taker, was one of the most interesting characters to me; I also liked Eladora, Cari’s cousin, who’s almost always put-upon, and her mentor at the University, Professor Ongent. Aleena, the ass-kicking “saint”, is hilarious. There’s no defined viewpoint chapters, as you get with something like Game of Thrones – the plot focuses on Cari’s story, but never so much so that you aren’t aware that there are a hundred other threads being pulled while things are happening.
To be honest, I still don’t think I fully understood this book. There’s an array of nightmarish denizens that I didn’t want to think too hard about – flesh-eating ghouls, policemen made from the candle-dipped remains of prisoners, beings that are just a mass of worms… It’s Lovecraftian and horrible – there are certainly places where the horror brushed the edges of my comfort zone. But, like a good citizen of Guerdon, I kept my head down and edged past them, trying not to think too hard about what the city held. I’m not sure how or why the different beings came to be, or how they function alongside the humans in the city, but again, it kind of works for that creepy setting of a city with too many secrets.
The main plot deals extensively with gods, religion, cults and death, so it’s a nice cheerful read (!). But seriously, it somehow manages to be fun – there’s loads of action, a butt-ton of gallows humour, and Cari is exactly the kind of reckless, kicking-and-screaming-against-her-fate heroine that I love. There’s a perfectly normal fantasy novel in here somewhere – “thief girl learns she’s special, changes the world with her motley crew”, but it’s warped and twisted until that epic plot is just one more thing to happen to this terrible city. It’s as if HP Lovecraft met Brandon Sanderson in the pub and they got drunk on brightly coloured jelly shots. I’m fascinated to know what happens next in Guerdon’s history – I won’t understand half of it, but damn, will I enjoy it.
Five out of five cats.