2019’s The Gutter Prayer is the first volume in Gareth Hanrahan’s planned Black Iron Legacy series. It is Hanrahan’s debut novel.
Rat, Carillon, and Spar: the ghoul, the runaway, and the Stone Man. Each have their special talents; together they make a splendid team of thieves. Master thief Heinreil seems to think so; he selected the trio to steal valuable documents from the city of Guerdon’s House of Law.
Some missions are more challenging than others. When we meet our heroes, the House of Law is in flames thanks to the wild success of another team’s alchemical explosives. Guerdon’s protectors are well aware that something untoward is up. Rat escapes capture, but Carillon and Spar do not.
Happily for Carillon, justice in Guerdon is often carried out on a cash-and-carry basis. Carillon’s bounty is paid off by Professor Ongent. Carillon, at least, gets out of prison.
Spar is not so lucky. Captor Jere is determined to get a confession that Heinreil was behind the destruction of the House of Law. Jere knows that Spar is the more vulnerable of the captured thieves. The disease that gives Spar his durability and strength is terminal. Slowing it requires medicine and Jere controls Spar’s access to the medicine.
Outsiders would say that Guerdon is blessed. The cruel old Iron Gods were put down ages ago by the acolytes of the Keeper Gods. The Keeper Gods and their chosen saints keep the peace in the city and the city’s peace with its neighbours. The city’s alchemists have taken magic to unparalleled heights. The Godswar that is reducing other regions to wastelands hasn’t affected Guerdon, other than to provide a market for its alchemical weapons.
Guerdon’s inhabitants, on the other hand, are increasingly aware that something untoward is up. The Crawling Ones, monsters not seen since the Iron Gods fell, have reappeared. Carillon is haunted by voices and visions she cannot understand. The peaceful city (a fragile peace when the powerful few rule over the desperate many) is becoming increasingly violent. Violent in new and odd ways.
If there is one lesson the Godswar teaches, it is that killing patheons is nearly impossible. The Iron Gods were defeated, not destroyed. That which exists can be called back by those who know how. Someone must be calling. Carillon and company are the key to finding and defeating the call — if they can avoid becoming dangers themselves.
The book begins with a section written in second person. What is it with second person narratives these days? Not only that, it’s not the first novel focused on applied theological engineering that I have read this year. Heck, it’s not the first such work I’ve read this week. Not as odd as the week where every protagonist had a hand cut off, but still, enough to make me wonder if there’s something in the water. Or the air. Or perhaps radioactive spiders …
I’d love to see a devout person’s take on a depiction of gods that seems to be accepted across large swaths of fantasy, which is that gods are phenomena that can manipulated for human benefit if one has the requisite knowledge. As far as I can tell from the outside, some faiths take an abstract view of divinity while others lean towards anthropomorphism. In novels like this, divine beings seem to be more akin to steam engines and waterfalls1, a resource to be exploited. I wonder if some of this might be credited to fantasy role playing games, where gods exist to power magic, such as healing spells. [**Editor’s note: James, many devout, of many religions, believe in submission, not exploitation.]
This is a first novel and that shows in a few ways. Some info is dumped more than once. There are more viewpoint characters than the author can juggle without losing focus. Still, the characters were engaging. Also, there was an element of caper novel in this debut and I do like me some caper novels.
1: Given the effects of the Godswar, perhaps the gods are less like steam engines and waterfalls and more like the worst of Soviet-era nuclear power plants.