2020’s The Shadow Saint is the second volume in Gareth Hanrahan’s Black Iron Legacy.
Six months after Scar’s miracle reshaped Guerdon’s landscape, the city’s rulers are still locked in internecine conflict. If the city is to survive, cooperation is crucial. Yet each faction is focused solely on attaining supremacy, by fair means or foul.
While Guerdon’s politicians squabble, the Godswar is marching towards Guerdon.
Eladora was raised to be a saint, a conduit for power raised by her mother’s cult. That’s not what she wants for her life. Turning her back on her mother and the cult, she goes to work for Effro Kelkin, a politician who held a lot of power until the recent crisis. He’s lost ground, but half a year later, the city has settled down. Elections will be held. Kelkin wants to win and Eladora will help him.
Out in the larger world: the Empire of Haith is shrinking, pressed by the armies of the Sacred Realm of Ishmere. Haith plays for time, looking for a place to slow Ishmere’s seemingly unstoppable advance. Guerdon might be exactly what Haith needs, provided that the divided city can be manipulated into serving as a distraction.
Lieutenant Terevant Erevesic of the Ninth Rifles of Haith, second son of a great family, a soldier best known for surviving a calamitous battle with the Sacred Realm, is summoned to Guerdon, He is to deliver to his ambassador brother a magic sword containing the minds of his esteemed ancestors. Surrounded by cunning bastards, Terevant is himself a straightforward fellow bright enough to know when he is being used, but not quite bright enough to escape his plight.
Guerdon has kept its gods carefully stunted; they are domesticated deities that cannot run riot as has Ishmere’s deranged pantheon. The cost of this prudent policy is that the city’s half-starved gods are incapable of fending off Ishmere’s gods. There is, however, a weapon that can kill a god. Godbombs require hard to obtain materials. Using one requires careful planning.
The people who matter have cunning schemes to maneuver their expendable pawns into the correct position. The cost will be high but Haith and Guerdon are led by people who are willing, eager even, to make the hard decisions. In a sense it’s a pity so many nobodies will have to die. In another sense, that’s what the little people are for.
As a designated playing piece Eladora has the entirely unreasonable view that she and others like her are in many senses people. She’s not stupid, she’s not expendable and she has her own solution to the problem of Ishmere.
Although the author has been kind enough to provide a Coles’ Notes version of The Gutter Prayer, readers would be ill-advised to read this without first reading the book that precedes The Shadow Saint. Both books have enough plot to count as a novel, but there’s a lot of background information that readers need to understand what’s going on in this volume. (You may also want to read my review of the first novel in the series.)
To quote the late Terry Pratchett’s I Shall Wear Midnight:
“Evil begins when you begin to treat people as things.”
The Gutter Prayer and The Shadow Saint illustrate this adage. The people who matter — Haith’s spies, Guerdon’s politicians, the rich gumbo of cultists that infest the city — are all pretty sure that other people exist to be moved around on the playing board of life, reshaped according to the needs of their betters, and discarded once used.
As I tend to point out (a lot), too many SFF works are firmly on the side of hard people who make hard decisions. It’s a pleasant change of pace to encounter a novel that appears to take the opposing perspective: hard people making hard choices is a terrible way to run things, a way that seems designed to keep the hard people on top.
The book is large, lush, sprawling and complicated. If you need a break from your current reality, you might want to come visit here.
1: Treating things as people is another classic error — see the legal status of corporations in some polities, for example. I bet whoever invented the idea of gods (which are made-things formed and sustained by directed faith in Hanrahan’s world) thought they were on to an awesome idea. It turns out that there can be significant issues with implementation. In particular, gods are more like algorithms than people, and they’re happy to mindlessly pursue their inbuilt programs to logical ends regardless of externalities.
Being kidnapped by foreigners, dragged off to their blood-soaked temple, and having one’s living heart carved out to provide a brief morsel to an out of control god would be an example of an externality.