The first instalment in Gareth Hanrahan’s THE BLACK IRON LEGACY is a bit like an avalanche: The Gutter Prayer (2019) starts out slowly and a tad scattershot, taking about 150 – 200 pages to build momentum, but when everything falls into place, it becomes an onslaught, picking up speed over the next 300 or so pages before crashing to a breathless finish.
Within the ancient coastal city of Guerdon, citizens maintain an air of normalcy, going about their daily lives as though below the city streets there aren’t miles and miles of subterranean warrens and passages filled with flesh-eating ghouls and Crawling Ones, hive-minded masses of sentient maggots. Liberal use of alchemy enriches their lives, providing conveniences and medicine (for a price) and enforcing the law via Tallowmen, humanoid figures made of animated wax. There are sorcerers and universities, churches and docks, the well-to-do and beggars, and a Brotherhood of thieves barely keeping a lid on its internal power struggle ever since its leader was hanged.
That former leader’s son, Spar, suffers from a contagious ailment shared by many in Guerdon: their flesh and blood slowly turn to stone, despite the alchemists’ development of a treatment, and given enough time or injury, all Stone Men become statues. For the time being, he’s got it under control with regular injections of alkahest, and the curse doesn’t prevent him from participating in Brotherhood missions like the one that begins The Gutter Prayer. Spar, his new friend Cari, and a ghoul named Rat are sent by the Brotherhood’s current leader to Guerdon’s House of Law, but before they can complete their mission, an alchemical bomb explodes within the building’s lower levels, utterly destroying anything of value and bringing the trio to the attention of the guards, who assume they’re responsible.
Rat escapes to the underground warrens, Spar is picked up by a notorious thief-taker who offers doses of precious alkahest in exchange for information on the Brotherhood, and Cari is taken in by Professor Ongent, a scholar who is deeply interested in Cari’s mysterious blackouts and ability to recite books she’s never read. As time goes on and more alchemical bombs are unleashed, the trio learns more about their city’s history and its significance to the wider world than they ever thought possible, but the real trick will be in putting that information to good use before the entire city is destroyed.
Character-wise, the supporting cast caught my attention more than the primary trio. Cari, Spar, and Rat are interesting enough, but they all felt a little flat to me. They’re so obviously the stalwart heroes of this tale that I never worried for their safety or feared that they might make decisions that would take them too far down an ethically-questionable path. Cari’s cousin Eladora, a studious-minded young woman whose contact with Cari shifts the entire course of her life, is far more interesting, as are the intensely foul-mouthed Saint Aleena (who I hope we’ll see again) and the surprisingly noble thief-taker Jere Taphson, whose shellshock as a result of service in the Godswar is deftly folded into his narrative.
There are interesting and imaginative aspects of The Gutter Prayer, like the Stone Men curse, the semi-organized civilization of ghouls, the living saints who take on aspects of their gods, all manner of sorcery, and the implementation of alchemy and alkahest. There’s an interlude late in the book which takes place elsewhere and concerns a living saint walking among the people of Grena, and I appreciated this inclusion because it shows what sainthood means within this world, and the positive and negative effects of hosting even a portion of one’s god within one’s frail mortal body. Guerdon’s underground passages and their inhabitants are creepy to say the least, and the entire city is well-done, though it doesn’t break out of the standard medieval British-inspired fantasy-city mold. Hanrahan succeeds in making Guerdon feel real and very much in the moment, though the execution of the city’s history wasn’t as well-integrated as I would have liked — there’s apparently a massive war going on in the wider world, and seems to have been for quite some time, but I’m not entirely sure what it all signifies or who the involved parties are. I hope the Godswar is explored in greater detail in subsequent books, because it’s obviously key to everything that happens in this book, but I only have a vague sense of how long the conflict has been sustained, where it’s taking place (beyond not in Guerdon), and what its possible endgame is.
More than anything, now that I have a good glimpse of the bedrock supporting THE BLACK IRON LEGACY, I’m excited to see what Hanrahan intends to build upon that foundation, and what he chooses to do next with this fascinating world and the characters living within it. I enjoyed The Gutter Prayer, and I’ll definitely pick up the next book in the series when it becomes available.