The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Hanrahan (Review)
Rating: 4/5 Link: Amazon
A bold new entry into the realm of dark fantasy novels. As a connoisseur of the genre, I’ve read my fair share of dark fantasy novels, from Brent Weeks Night Angel series to the excellent Edge of the Breach novel by Halo Scott. It’s one of the hardest themes to master, one that requires the writer to shed their rationality and stand near the edge of sanity in order to succeed.
Gareth strikes a good balance, however, between the ‘dark’ and ‘fantasy’ aspects of the genre. It doesn’t spiral away into an absolute hellscape, in terms of character arcs, plot twist and the like, whilst keeping a firm grip on the fantasy aspect of the novel, allowing the reader to explore the world of Guerdon at their own place, background lore neatly interwoven with the well-paced plot of the story as well as keeping a good sense of tension in the air that any one of our characters may die at any moment. The idea of mad gods running around causing destruction and strife, resulting in the Godswar, is a fascinating concept and one which Gareth has done well to write it in a way that stirs the imagination of the reader without giving too much away. It’s a concept that I hope he continues forward in the sequel novel.
A key reason why the novel doesn’t achieve the full score, however, is due to the lack of character development. This goes for the main characters, their companions and the numerous antagonists (around three to four of them) that are crammed in one single novel. A better option would’ve been more time dedicated towards their development or decreasing the number of antagonists the reader has to follow. Otherwise, this is an excellent read for those looking to dip their toes into the realm of dark fantasy.
1. A Balancing Act
Dark fantasy is tricky. Being heavy on fantasy and light on the ‘dark’ aspect of it deprives the reader of the ominous carnality they were promised. On the flip side, being light on fantasy and heavy on the ‘dark’ might just make the reader too sick to continue forward.
Gareth has struck a brilliant balance here, however. Dark aspects are ever present on every page of the novel, whether it’s the grey areas of Rats sanity, the darker greys of Spar’s curse and march towards death, or the darkest blacks of the Grey Iron gods and their relationship with Cari. Fantasy leaps from the pages, whether it’s the description of how the Ghouls came to exist in the first place, myriad descriptions of the Godswar fleshed out by Jere Taphson, single chapters dedicated towards the introduction of the Ravellers or mad gods in regions outside of Guerdon.
It was a fascinating balancing act to witness as the pages turned, one which Gareth should rightly be proud that he managed to stick with all the way to the end.
2. Of Stone, Ghouls and Gods
Delving more into the fantasy aspects of this novel is like diving into an ocean of ideas, potential and possibilities. The world that Gareth created in The Gutter Prayer is nothing short of fascinating. The city of Guerdon is the main locale for the entirety of the main plot, which has been built from the ground up in a realistic fashion. The reader does get a sense of history, of just how ancient the city really is and the manner in which different factions live and mingle with each other is reminiscent of the melting pot of the world in which we live in.
In other words, it’s grounded fantasy in terms of human interaction, dreams, ambitions and cruelty. The addition of the beastly Ghouls, the cursed Stonemen and obedient Saints serving Mad Gods add a touch of spice to the already sprawling world. Most of the mythical creatures introduced in the novel are new concepts that I haven’t seen explored in any other fantasy novel. Ravellers, Crawling Ones and Black Iron Gods are new entries into the “Hall of Fame”, when it comes to primary fantasy antagonists, and it’s refreshing originality gives the reader a sense of anticipation and wonder.
A sense of scale is slowly lifted with every turn of the page and, by the end of it, Gareth leaves the readers wanting more stories to come out of the amazing world that he’s built.
3. Stale Character Development
Despite the excellent story, the seemingly wide array of creatures and the depth of the plot, I feel that the book fell short for me in terms of character development. Carillion, for me, never really developed from the arrogant kid that we are introduced to in the beginning of the novel. She doesn’t strike me as a hard edged, ‘don’t fuck with me or I’ll slice you’ type. With every turn of the page, I got even more and more annoyed with her antics, one that borders on pure arrogance, immaturity and - well - not really thinking through about the consequences of her actions.
Spar and Rat were equally disappointing, but for different reasons. Spar’s arc was cruelly crushed by the end of the novel through his untimely death, without having fulfilled his dreams of leading the Brotherhood, although seemingly most of the main plot was driven by that goal. Rat’s transformation from lowly Ghoul to all-powerful Elder was also jarring, taking two sentences to transform what was a weak character to one that’s suddenly just as powerful as magical being as saints.
It was frustrating to see that character progress was made either too fast without explanation or their personalities were seemingly stuck in a permanent stage of immaturity. Hopefully, this will change with the second novel in the series.
Despite it’s faults (and which all books have them), this is an excellent read all round and one which I recommend to those looking to experience their first ‘dark fantasy’ novel that strikes a good balance between both aspects of the genre, with a well developed and paced plot, despite the flawed characters.