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Book Review: The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan

The Gutter Prayer gutter prayer
Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan

Del Rey, 2019
★★★★★

This book is fucking extraordinary. The author’s background as a gamer and writer of gaming books really comes through in the unusual and dense worldbuilding, which was the best part of the book. There is a plethora of adjectives I might use to describe the worldbuilding – Lovecraftian, Steampunk, Victorian – but none of them truly do justice to the bizarre mash-up of influences that have come to create the city of Guerdon and the world it resides in. This book features actual living gods, warped saints, eldritch abominations, terrifying religious cults, alchemical magic, plenty of body horror, and a Godswar threatening to consume the entire world. I was fucking enthralled.

The sheer originality and creativity of the worldbuilding was absolutely riveting. The reason this book took me so long to finish was because it is so delightfully dense; I took my time savoring every detail. I found myself rereading so many lines and paragraphs because I was so thrilled by their spine-chilling implications. Hanrahan has a very skillful way of weaving dread very casually into his writing, so that your skin starts to crawl before you fully comprehend what you’ve just read. He’s also masterful at revealing information; so many fantasy books plod along and deliver exposition awkwardly, but here, details are revealed organically, slowly, tantalizingly. The rich, layered history of Guerdon is described in pieces that come together to make an astonishingly vivid and realistic whole.

And the deities, oh, the deities! The gods – actual, living gods – are a significant plot point in this book. They are as gods should be – utterly terrifying and unknowable. But they are also reflections of human belief, a sort of magical manifestation of grand delusions that can never truly be killed, only whittled down to a weaker form. Most are violent, bloodthirsty, utterly mad. And their use of saints is truly terrifying, as saints often become deformed or mad because of their gods’ influence. It’s so utterly bleak and bloody. I loved this so much. I mean, seriously, have I mentioned how creepy and disturbing and unsettling this book is?

(Also, sidenote: this book is a testament to how well you can write something horrifying and grimdark without resorting to sexual violence, of which there is none in this book. Just saying.)

Our actual main characters are surprisingly unique as well. There’s Spar, the son of the deceased leader of the thieves’ guild, who also happens to suffer from the Stone Plague, a disease that is slowly turning him to stone and requires regular injections of an alchemical concoction to stall its progress. While at first this Stone Plague didn’t seem wholly original, the choice to feature a main, POV character with this disease was what pushed the boundaries. Through Spar’s perspective we truly see how absolutely horrifying this disease truly is. Then there’s Rat, a ghoul, one of the city’s subterranean inhabitants and eaters of their dead, a creature caught between humanity and his true nature, and somewhat enigmatic. The heart of this little group is Cari, a rather impulsive and short-tempered orphaned runaway who finds herself at the center of a magical plot that involves the thieves’ guild, the alchemists’ guild, her family, and a terrifying pantheon of gods. Other characters include a tenacious and surprisingly good-hearted bounty-hunter, a bookish young woman who happens to be Cari’s relative, and a hilarious, foul-mouthed older woman who is not especially pleased to be a saint.

The mystery unfolds slowly, almost leisurely, but never is this book boring, because it is peppered with bits of intriguing worldbuilding, sprinkled cleverly to augment the plot. It all comes to a close in a harrowing conclusion that’s very fitting for a grimdark fantasy.

I honestly don’t know what else to say to express just how much I loved and adored this book. I’m simultaneously inspired to go off and work on my own fantasy novel but also deflated and discouraged because how can I write something that even comes close to this? I’m just…in awe. The Gutter Prayer is one of the most memorable and inspiring books I’ve read in a long, long while; it’s definitely going down as one of my favorite books of all time.

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