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Friday, April 10, 2020

The Shadow Saint, by Gareth Hanrahan (Reviewed by David Stewart)

Official Author Website
Fantasy Book Critic's Review of The Gutter Prayer
Order The Shadow Saint here

The Gutter Prayer was one of the few books that I have pulled off a bookstore shelf simply because the cover was so arresting. I did not know a thing about the book but ended up loving its gritty world and misfit cast of characters. The Shadow Saint, The Gutter Prayer's follow-up, goes in with the disadvantage of expectation - I knew mostly what I was in for and it was up to Hanrahan to deliver a worthy successor to his breakout hit. He did it, and while I think The Gutter Prayer might be the better novel, The Shadow Saint is in many ways the ideal way to showcase the middle chapter of a series. It is rare for a second book in a trilogy to be the one that everyone raves about (I know it happens, Star Wars fans), and so that tempered my wildest expectations enough that I was able to settle in to The Shadow Saint and simply enjoy myself.


What immediately caught the attention of most of The Gutter Prayer's readers was Hanrahan's world-building ability. The city of Guerdon is a character all its own, and like any good character, over the course of these novels it changes drastically. At the end of the first book, a New City is literally grown from the body of a dying man, giving the old city a coat of fresh paint that plays an integral part in the second book. Even beyond that, Hanrahan has such an interest in politics and religion and how they intermingle to form a society, that even did Guerdon not change in a very real physical sense, it would do so thematically. To add to this is Hanrahan's pantheon of gods - a group of deities that defy any logic and exist in the same way that the violent old gods of our own mythology do. In The Shadow Saint, gods from across the sea are coming to destroy Guerdon, and the city's only defense is a weaponized distillation of the Black Iron Gods, the very evil Carillon and Spar sought so desperately to stop in The Gutter Prayer.

Part of what makes Guerdon so interesting is its tone. I always question why human beings choose to live in dangerous places, and my confusion extends to fantasy realms. Guerdon is not a friendly place, and why everyone hasn't moved out to the countryside to live in suburbs with SUVs and in-ground pools is beyond me, but I'm glad they haven't because I enjoy the constant sense of danger and weirdness that Guerdon offers. Adding in the New City, a place that can quite literally change with a thought, gives the entire thing an even weirder context - as though the characters aren't really on the mortal plane at all but rather existing in some city of the gods. It works, and Hanrahan's writing style fits it like a warm blanket.

The Gutter Prayer had readers following Carillon, Spar, and Rat as they tried to survive a veritable apocalypse, and I quite liked that original cast. In a surprise move, Hanrahan takes the focus off of Carillon and onto her cousin, a young woman named Eladora who is featured in the first book but isn't front and center. She is joined as a point-of-view character by a spy who is never given a true name and exists as several people at once, and a prince from a Northern realm that, if its mentioned at all, was not in my memory from The Gutter Prayer. I like the new cast, and Carillon isn't entirely absent from the book, but I really liked those misfits from the first story. They would be hard to top in this context, and I actually admire Hanrahan's willingness to move out of his comfort zone. Even if I may not have liked them as much, there is no doubt that these are fully fleshed out characters who probably adapt and change more than did those in the first book (Spar might be the exception). Eladora changes dramatically in The Shadow Saint, and I think her evolution is remarkably well done.


Where The Gutter Prayer is a nigh on neck-breakingly paced book, The Shadow Saint slows things down, and this probably more than anything is what dimmed it for me. As I said in my introduction, the middle portion of a trilogy almost has to be this way because it acts as a bridge between its bookends. However, what The Shadow Saint does at times is get so bogged down with its politics that I found myself struggling to read it. This may work for some, and I think Hanrahan's political writing is well done, I just didn't enjoy reading about it much in the same way that I don't enjoy reading about politics in a newspaper. This is not to say that I don't enjoy politics because I am as political as anyone who lives in a society, but the methods of conveying those politics can often bore me. For me, The Shadow Saint was at its best when it was dealing with its deities, which happens more at the beginning and end of the book than anywhere in between.

The Shadow Saint also suffers in its middle book syndrome by leaving dangling threads - plot lines that aren't satisfactorily explored or concluded. I wanted more with Carillon, for instance, who does not seem as though she is finished with Guerdon or this story. I expect I will have to wait a year or more to see if my wishes for this series are fulfilled by a third book that has a lot of baggage to successfully carry.

Parting Thoughts

I liked The Gutter Prayer more than I liked The Shadow Saint, but that's like saying I like a nice red ale more than a stout - they are both beer and I love them. I think Hanrahan is here to stay as one of the premier fantasy authors of this decade (assuming we are all around to see the rest of it). It would have been a simple and tragic thing to fumble the second book after such a strong debut, but he kept hold and delivered, and I am 100% here for the conclusion of The Black Iron Legacy. I hope some of these characters live to see the end of it - a wish I also hold for all of us readers. Stay safe!


Gareth Hanrahan said...

Thank you for the review!

One clarification - the Black Iron Legacy isn't a trilogy. It's probably going to be a five-book series, but that's not confirmed yet, but definitely more than three :)

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