The Shadow Saint: Out Of The Shadows, Into The Limelight

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Okay, let’s do a checklist here of things I like that The Shadow Saint has in it, yeah? Krakens attacking ships: check. Skeletons with dry senses of humor: check. Horrifying surreal imagery: big ol’ check. Ghouls: still a check there too. I could keep going for a while but I think you all get the idea, The Shadow Saint ticks a lot of the boxes of things that I like in a book, and I really, really liked it. Sorry for the review spoiler, but get over it, or don’t, whatever.

The Shadow Saint, by Gareth Hanrahan, is the second book in The Black Iron Legacy series. Given that it is the second book, you probably shouldn’t be reading a review or a synopsis of it if you haven’t read the first book, The Gutter Prayer, but I’m not your dad so you can do whatever you want, man. You can find our review of Prayer here if you are wondering if it’s for you. That said, spoilers lie ahead for the first book and you should venture forth at your own peril. 

Our story picks up soon after the close of the first novel, with our previous protagonists mostly either dead or fundamentally changed by their experiences. The appearance of the New City, due to the Gutter Miracle from book one, and the fall of the alchemical stranglehold of the guild and their Tallowmen, have thrown Guerdon into chaos. For those familiar with the city, it’s pretty much business as usual. Unfortunately, that is about to change when the Godswar finally comes to Guerdon. 

One of my minor complaints in my review of the previous book (still here), was that the rest of the world felt a little underdeveloped compared to all of the information and history we received about Guerdon and its place in the world. We knew that there was a death empire called Haith, but little else about it. We knew that Ishmere was perpetrating a “godswar” that was causing a massive influx of refugees, but outside of a couple of chapters and descriptions of the various horrors, we never got a chance to experience them. In The Shadow Saint, all of that changes. It almost felt as if Hanrahan heard the (very mild) criticism, and decided that if we wanted to know about the rest of the world, then we’d best buckle up for book two. Saint packs so much worldbuilding and information into its runtime, without feeling bloated at any point, that I am frankly amazed. I have a much better understanding of the world and how it functions after this book, and it all felt surprisingly important to the overall plot. Ishmere is the one small exception to this because while we did get more of a glimpse into individual Ishmerians and their choices and beliefs, the actual society still feels a little blank. 

On the other hand, we have the empire of Haith. Normally I would briefly go over all of the various factions in my paragraph about worldbuilding, but I am so enthralled with and enraptured by the idea of Haith that I just need to gush about it for a little bit. Haith is an “eternal empire” run by necromancers (necromancers are so hot right now). Instead of worshipping gods, their power instead comes from the creation of magical artifacts they refer to as phylacteries. These phylacteries are held by the head of an individual noble house and contain the souls and accumulated knowledge and experience of all those who have held the artifact before. Think Avatar the Last Airbender, with each phylactery granting the holder knowledge of thousands of their greatest ancestors rather than the previous avatars. The moments that we see this in the book are incredibly cool and I loved the descriptions of how the character going through this moment experienced it personally. As I mentioned before, only the previous wielder of the phylactery can transfer their soul into it and become Enshrined, the highest class in Haith. Beneath the Enshrined, we have the Vigilant; individuals whose souls are bound to their bodies after death and become magical living skeletons forever working toward the betterment of the Empire of Haith. Needless to say, the concept of legions of skeleton warriors led by necromantic superhumans against a nation of mad warring gods is pretty far up my alley, and I absolutely loved it.

I also loved Hanrahan’s improvement in terms of the plot. I mentioned in my last review that while The Gutter Prayer was a fun ride, I felt the plot could be directionless and meandering at times before it finally found its stride. The Shadow Saint felt like it noticeably addressed this issue with a much more cohesive and streamlined plot. I’m not sure how much of it was my preexisting knowledge of the city of Guerdon and the characters that live there, and how much of it was Hanrahan smoothing out the hiccups from the previous installment, but the pacing and engineering of the plot is spot on in The Shadow Saint. However, I did feel that the actual climax happened rather quickly – but I think that was more a result of the sheer amount of things happening than any mechanical failing on Hanrahan’s part.

I’d like to wrap up with a note on the prose and descriptions. Hanrahan has a gift for describing the miraculous and horrifying in a way that makes it easy to imagine and hard to forget. In a book that is about warring gods and saints, miraculous massacres of undead bone soldiers, and a living city that was created by magic everything still manages to feel real and weighty. I could envision every stilling of the waters by the Kraken, and the descriptions of the Smoke Painter drawing glowing sigils in the sky that turned those that looked at them mad clicked with the part of me that loves cosmic horror and the rabbit hole of the SCP Foundation wiki. I need more of this world in my life, and I hope that Hanrahan decides to continue this world’s story whether it revolves around Guerdon and the characters from this series or not. I had a ton of fun reading this book. The Shadow Saint is a stellar sophomore effort and I can only hope that Hanrahan continues his skyward trajectory from here. I will be on the lookout for more news on the world of The Black Iron Legacy, and I desperately hope that I get the opportunity to return to this world sometime in the future. As it stands, we already have two fantastic books and I cannot recommend highly enough that you bump this series to be next in line on your reading schedule. 

Rating: The Shadow Saint – 9.0/10

-Will

 

The Gutter Prayer – Get Your Mind In This Gutter

51dGKfMrwvL._SX331_BO1204203200_This is pretty much the coolest post ever on the site, and I’ll tell you why. I’m writing from the future! Not only did we here at The Quill to Live receive an advanced reader’s copy of The Gutter Prayer (in exchange for an honest review), but I’m writing this from the back of a taxi in London. Not only is this being written before the book is even out, but I’m writing it from tomorrow (depending on where you live and what time it is, I suppose it could even be from the past all things considered but since that’s how these usually go that sounds less cool).

Let’s get the actual review started, shall we? To whet your appetite, I’d like to give you my one-line description: take RJB’s Divine Cities series, throw in a little churchy intrigue a la Gladstone’s Craft Sequence series, then top it off with a healthy smattering of unique and fun ideas and you get The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Hanrahan. Any longtime readers of the blog will know just how lofty the heights of our esteem is for The Divine Cities and the Craft Sequence, and they will surely be wondering whether this novel soars like an eagle or a little more like Icarus.

I’m gonna go ahead and spoil the rest of the review a little here and answer that lead-in question: the book was great. I had a really fun time with a varied cast of characters, a unique and vibrant city I enjoyed exploring, and a surprisingly deep and interesting world. While there was a bit of hand-waving when it came to filling in the parts of the world we didn’t see, there was enough fleshed out that I’m excited for a chance to go back and hear more about them. The city that we spend the duration of our tale in, Guerdon, is an old and storied merchant city with a long enough past that some of it is bound to be dark (and oh my does it turn out to be). With an incurable plague that slowly turns its victims to statues, alchemical monsters patrolling the streets, and ghouls living alongside humans Guerdon has a lot going on. It would be easy to just sketch the city out in broad strokes with so much else to describe, but Hanrahan does a great job of making Guerdon feel lived in and real. As the story unfolds and we become privy to more of the city’s past I became more impressed with the amount of thought that was put into it and how interesting it all was.

As cool as the city was, however, you need solid characters to do things in a story. Spar, Rat, and Carillon are the three main characters in The Gutter Prayer and they’re all thieves. Spar is a stone man, afflicted by the plague mentioned earlier and the descriptions of his illness and what he goes through to survive it just a little longer can be heartwrenching at times. Carillon is a vagrant and thief recently returned to the city after running away in her childhood. Rat is a ghoul. I want to point out that the fact that a main character was a ghoul was my main reason for choosing to read and review this book. I was hoping that would add a bit of something disturbing to the story and oh boy does it. I don’t think the sections from Rat’s POV would necessarily turn anyone off of the book by itself, but there are certainly things that made me squeamish.

That’s a perfect segue into explaining why I was reminded of The Divine Cities, one of my absolute favorite series, when I was reading this book. Hanrahan’s creativity in coming up with and describing the various non-human “monsters” in his story is spectacular. Roaming the streets of Guerdon instead of a police force is the “Tallowmen”, waxwork figures made from criminals (and possibly others) with a burning wick on the top of their head. Super strong, super fast, and with a wicked knife instead of handcuffs, the Tallowmen added a lot of great tension to the story considering our main characters are thieves. The Tallowmen aren’t even the only thing: Crawling Ones, the aforementioned population of Ghouls, Ravellers, various alchemical horror-weapons, and in the near distance is the Godswar where maddened gods twist nature to do battle with one another. It all adds up to nearly a thrill a page and it felt like nearly every chapter was a cliffhanger in terms of exciting new things to see.

It can’t all be good, of course, and while the characters and world were amazing, the plot felt little rushed and unfocused. It felt very much like a couple of stories mushed together to make a single longer introduction to the world, and while it didn’t put me off the book I think that a lot could have been done to make the pacing better. It’s a plot we’ve seen before, and in a book that is so bursting full of unique and fresh things, it sticks out a little bit.

All in all I think that The Gutter Prayer is an interesting and extremely fun entry into The Black Iron Legacy, the name of this new series. I love discovering new monsters and I’m a sucker for detailed, old, and dangerous cities. If you’re anything like me in those regards you’ll absolutely love The Gutter Prayer. I’m interested in where the sequel goes, because much like City Of Stairs, The Gutter Prayer ends with a variety of paths open to it. I’ll be keeping my eye out for the sequel, as I think this series is going to be one of the major talking points of 2019.

Rating: The Gutter Prayer – 8.0/10
-Will