I received this novel from Orbit Books, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.
In the past few days, The Gutter Prayer has been reviewed all over the place, so let’s join the fun…
This is the kind of book that requires extreme flexibility of mind from its readers, because it throws them into the thick of things from page one, and from there it keeps a constant, swift pace for most of its length, leaving them almost no time to metabolize the events or to consider them in depth – which in a way encapsulates both the pros and cons of this story. If that breakneck speed works well for the progress of the story itself, which is built upon a series of twists and turns, discoveries and betrayals, it goes to the detriment of character development, because in the end it seems we never get to know those people well, or at least that was the impression I received.
The city of Guerdon is something of a safe port in a sea of turmoil, while the rest of the world is in the throes of the God War, a conflict in which divine entities battle for supremacy, generating hordes of refugees fleeing from mayhem and destruction. Guerdon avoided this fate some time before by taming its deities and turning them into the Kept Gods, beings whose powers are greatly diminished and only wielded through “saints”, ordinary people imbued with special faculties who act on the gods’ behalf. This does not mean, however, that the city is a quiet place: the secular powers running Guerdon keep contending with each other for dominance, and it soon becomes clear that someone has been working in secret to tap the buried energies of the old gods to achieve that goal. In this scenario, the three main characters find themselves swept away by events that seem bigger than they are and that will test their powers for endurance and growth.
Carillon Thay, or Cari, is the only survivor of a once-influential family whose members where slaughtered when she was a small child. Trusted into the care of relatives, she ran away but was forced to return to Guerdon – penniless and desperate – and try to eke out a living among the thieves of the less-savory quarters of the city. We meet her in the middle of a heist she’s working on with her friends Spar and Rat, and from that moment on she falls prey to terrifying visions that hint at something dark and dreadful at work. Spar is the son of the former head of the Thieves’ guild, or Brotherhood, and he lives in the shadow of his famous father who died in prison without revealing the Brotherhood’s secrets despite beatings and torture: Spar wants nothing more than to follow in his father’s footsteps, but his dreams are crushed when he contracts the Stone Plague, an illness that turns its victims into pieces of rock. And finally there’s Rat, a ghoul who tries desperately not to succumb too soon to his people’s inescapable drive for dead flesh and underground dwellings, staying near the surface as long as he can. The friendship between these three people, the bond they forge in spite of their differences, is indeed the brightest light in the grim scenario of The Gutter Prayer, and something that manages to withstand the worst kinds of test.
As the story progresses, we are taken through various parts of the city and learn of its structure and history, of its day-to-day workings and its horrors, especially the horrors: the Alchemists’ guild is one of the strongest powers in Guerdon, and among their creations are the Tallowmen, unfortunate people – mostly criminals and low-lives – who have been rendered into waxy shapes animated by a lit wick in the head; or the Gullheads, whose mere sight can inspire deep terror in the onlookers. But there are even worse players at large, like the Ravellers – nightmarish creatures who consume their victims and are able to take on their appearance so as to ensnare other targets; or the Crawling Ones, masses of worms that can mimic the human shape of the people whose soul they have eaten.
With such horrors as background and the revelation of the dirty political maneuverings that are the heart and blood of the city, Guerdon takes its rightful place among the flesh-and-blood characters and becomes more than a simple theater for events; more than once I was reminded of another city where darkness was stronger than light, China Mieville’s New Crobuzon from Perdido Street Station, but with an important difference: where the depiction of New Crobuzon stressed the element of decay almost to the point of basking in it – one of the reasons I did not enjoy that novel – here the negative aspects play as counterpoint to the story’s saving graces, and in particular to the themes of friendship and loyalty that are embodied in Cari, Spar and Rat. Cari in particular looks like a whimsical creature, one whose fight-or-flight instinct tends toward the latter rather than the former, a person who at first seems superficial and self-centered but who slowly reveals her deep commitment to her friends, and her willingness to sacrifice everything for them. And if Spar’s nobility is clear from the very start, something that together with his stoic acceptance of the illness’ unavoidable progression quickly endeared him to me, Rat comes across as a more complex creature, one whose nature and leanings bring him to live always on the edge.
What we can learn about these characters and the many others that people the story, however, looks more like fleeting glimpses, and the reckless speed of the narrative often denies the possibility of delving deeper into their nature, of knowing them better, which unfortunately leads to an overall effect of detachment that is one of my main contentions with this novel: I need to feel invested in characters – either for good or bad – to really connect with a book, and The Gutter Prayer never fully let me do this, keeping me at arm’s length, so to speak.
There is nothing wrong in a plot-driven story, of course, but it seems… wasteful to build such intriguing characters only to employ them as little more than extras – and here comes my other big problem with this novel: a good number of these people ends up dead, and that in itself would not be so unexpected considering how the story unfolds, but all these deaths seem devoid of any emotional connection since they happen far too quickly and are immediately washed away by the tsunami of other events. Two are the instances where this narrative choice bothered me greatly: in one case it’s an heroic act that allows other people to escape, and it happens off-screen, only a flash in the darkness marking the character’s ultimate sacrifice; in the other the person falls from a great height and is seen no more, and even if there are momentous consequences in the wake of that fall, it’s as if the individual did not matter anymore. In both cases it felt as if the characters were only little motes in the grand scheme of things, and given my sympathy for both of them that was quite hard to accept.
Still, The Gutter Prayer is a solid, very enjoyable novel and as debuts go a reasonably well-crafted one, and I can certainly recommend it to all lovers of the genre.