The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Hanrahan

So The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Hanrahan ranks right up there, in terms of my most anticipated books of 2019 and the pre-publication buzz has been nothing short of fantastic. I stalk Gareth on his blog and followed his reddit AMA and so no wonder, when I got approved for the ARC for Gutter Prayer, I was way over the moon, sun and all the stars.

Now having breathlessly finished his gut-punchy debut, I guess I finally know what all the fuzz was about. And well deserved, I might add. Grim-dark by way of New Weird (Think China Mievelle) Gareth has built  an immensely intricate and detailed world in his accomplished debut, The Gutter Prayer. Friendships, betrayals and forgotten myths come alive in a mad chaotic tale set in the ancient city of Guerdon - a crumbling metropolis that runs on alchemy and broken faith. Three unlikely allies go up against ancient guilds, a corrupt watch and a horde of demons from the underworld as the world around them gets caught up in an age-old war. Alchemical bombs, magically changed creatures, the hungry undead, Gareth really pulls no stops in coming up with his inventive take on "lovecraftian" horror and plugs the book chockablock with creatures that will twist and blow your mind.

The story takes off in a very interesting manner, through a second-person narrative as we watch a heist unfold inside this guarded library called the Tower of Law. What was to be simple smash and grab turns on its head and we soon realise it's all going to hell when the Tower of Law catches alchemical fire that blows up the tower. Up in flames, are also the ambitions of the three small-time thieves who realise that this mission might have been more than just a simple 'retrieve a few documents' kind of set up. They realise that there was probably a second team, sent in by their mistrusting boss. The backstabbings were just starting.

The three of them had been assigned to carry out this job by the 'Brotherhood' - a guild of thieves in the city of Guerdon headed by this slimy character called Henriel, a cunning survivor of all the previous attempts to cleanse the city of the 'Brotherhood' and who doesn't hesitate to sell his own, for a profit or to save his own skin (literally). The explosion sets into motion, a conspiracy that's been afoot for years now. A war bubbling in the undergrounds of the city and another larger one looming in the far-horizon where crazy Gods themselves are raging against each other. unfortunately for the thieves, it also makes them the hot targets for the 'Tallowmen'. [ Yeah you read that right - wax-zombies with lit wicks, zero emotions, armed with inhuman speed and a single-minded focus on neutralising a threat to security, in anyways possible. Creatures of alchemy!]

Cut to the three thieves themselves: They form the anchor point to how the narrative builds up in the aftermath of this amazing opening. Three of them are each extremely different from each other, thrown together by fate. After realising that they been thrown to the wolves by the head of the Brotherhood, Henreil, they each react in different manner.  Carri - a young girl who has come back to her birth-city but is still an outsider to the Brotherhood of thieves, is seething to get back to Henreil for more than just this and this was the final nail on that coffin. But she gets captured and locked up in a prison along with her friend, Spar. Now Spar is the son of the greatest leader of the Brotherhood Igde but who unfortunately has caught the deadly stone-plague. He is slowly calcifying and dying from the inside, turning into a 'stone-man'. He shares his father's ideals and wants to keep the 'brotherhood' clean, executing on the noble ambitions of his now dead-father. He vows to die just like his father, never once ratting out his 'brothers'. The third one in the group is Rat, a ghoul who prefers the 'surface' world more than the deep dark underground tunnels, devoid of light and munching on 'corpse-flesh'.  Rat is content to let the crazy Carri run amok with her vengeance plans or Spar take on the leader's role to whip up the revolution, preferring to play the quiet side-kick content to skulk in the dark corners, looking out for trouble and for himself.

Their loyalty and friendship is tested to the point of breaking when they each discover, in their own ways - that the neutral city of Guerdon may no longer be the safe haven that the city parliament proclaims it to be. There are ancient Gods coming back to life and horrors from the underground, long thought to be banished, coming up to the surface devouring life forms, just as easily as a flycatcher lapping up flies in summer.

It's a wondrous world that Gareth has painted and brought to life. Anchored around the amazing city of Guerdon, embellished with multiple cultures and a vibrant history. There are multiple sects engaged in their own show of faith and religiousness, myriad races apart from the plain humans (Gull-heads probably takes the cake! but then there are the corpse-eating Ghouls, the crawling ones who are a teeming mass of worms, the sorcerers and the saints...) and then there are the twisted variations of the animal-life (Raptequine! like when biology balks at itself and then twists to evolve into a monster that is a mix of a raptor and a horse!) that abound within Guerdon after having been subjected to experiments by the infamous 'Alchemist' guild. The society and the stratas within clearly distinguishing between the 'haves' ( Politicians or Guild Heads living in their bungalows and well-kept manicured gardens) and the have-nots ( the diseased, the poor scrounging for a living in the dirty hovels, an area known as the 'Wash')  here is also well fleshed out.

Gareth's writing, I must admit, did throw me off a bit. Alternating between second and third POV, his visual and visceral style of writing that takes us around the twisting maze that is the city of Guerdon, is hard-hitting and unapologetic. For this reason, it does get a bit dense and you cannot really skim through anything for fear missing out on something substantial. This slowed down my reading but definitely reaped rich rewards as I was taken on an immersive, sometimes claustrophobic journey into the crumbling depths of this city - the smells and the sounds, the decay and the decadence, the fear and the horrors coming alive - all of this is very vividly painted out. A minor point really, where it possibly takes attention away from the characterization but not complaining.

Among the chief three protagonists, Carri comes across as a peevish, selfish young girl unwilling to look beyond herself. Her chief thoughts only revolve around saving her skin in quite of few of the sticky situations she's dragged into. Spar is the noble one, trying to live up to the legacy of his father,  unwilling to accept that his large heart could possibly win over others in this seething, bubbling cauldron that is the Guerdon. The cityfolk need a hero but he is not ready to be one. Rat is actually the most fascinating of the lot and I would let you experience him in person as you read his unique perspectives. But he sheds light on the life underground of how Ghouls live and get by in this weird city.

Quite a few colorful side-characters  too, who help move the narrative forward. I really liked a couple. Like Jere the thief-taker; His perspective unfolds almost like a noir-detective story as he tries to piece together the puzzle of what has hit the city - starting with that fire at the Temple of Law where someone's scribbled a threat, "this is not the last". His dialogues with his assistant Bolind were even humorous, a much needed levity to the pervading cloud of grim-dark that was beginning to take over. Then there's of course the concept of 'Saints' - the only one still alive and strong enough these days is Aleena. Who curses like a sailor-woman and is not afraid to admit that the Gods don't really guide her anymore and she just bulls through stuff, blinded and instinctively. There are a couple of more - like Carri's studious cousin Eladora who wants nothing more than to win her professor's affection and is jealous of the effortless 'charm' of Carri herself. There's the mysterious professor Ongent himself and his powerful, silent son Miren.

Overall, it's a heady mix of a many original and really clever ideas that come together very well to create a dark, compelling narrative. Gareth is a game-designer and his attention to detail from his 'day-job' shines through in every minutae within the dark underbelly of Guerdon that stands up to the light of his creativity. The pacing falters a bit here and there, as we dig through multiple folds of the narrative unfolding. And it's not an easy read, if you ask me but stick through and it becomes extremely enjoyable as we near the end of the journey. It's an incredible debut, bursting with fresh ideas executed pretty well and should rank damn near the top of 2019 reads, for many readers. Especially if their predilection runs to the grim-dark kinds. A great start to the year, for me personally. Looking forward to what comes out next, from his explosive insane mind. Take a bow, Gareth. 


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