9 January 2020

Review - The Shadow Saint by Gareth Hanrahan

Illustration by Richard Anderson,
design by Steve Panton LBBG
The Shadow Saint (Black Iron Legacy, 2)
Gareth Hanrahan
Orbit, 9 January 2020
PB, 562pp

I'm grateful to Nazia at Orbit for an advance copy of The Shadow Saint.

"The spy climbs a stair of fire to get to Heaven..."

This is the sequel to Hanrahan's first novel, The Gutter Prayer, which introduced us to the city of Guerdon, its Machiavellian leader, Kelkin, the Godswar which rages abroad (but it's getting closer!) and most particularly to Carillon (Cari) Thay and Eladora Duttin, cousins whose fates are bound up with the city, the imprisoned Black Iron Gods and with the Godswar.

The focus of that book was very much on Cari, a young woman who had run away to sea but was now returned and first seen leading a gang to carry out a daring robbery. Cari, Rat and Spar (who was suffering from a disease that gradually turned him to stone) were caught between political and religious factions, as well as family politics and history, in events that eventually led to a crisis in the affairs of Guerdon and to Rat (having become king of the city's ghouls) trying to kill Cari. Hanrahan has given a detailed recap here - I wish more authors would do that! - which is worth reading before turning to The Shadow Saint.

The Shadow Saint picks up the story shortly after, with more focus on the Godswar. We see the city of Severast, recently fallen to the conquering forces of the Mad Gods (the fires of sacrifice still smoulder) We see the grim, necromantic kingdom of Haith, which is fighting a rearguard action against the conquerors. Haith's politics will play a central role in this story, which focusses on Eladora, rather than Cari: sensible, dutiful Eladora, who has gone from her studies at the University to working for Effro Kelkin, leader of the Industrial Liberal party and the wily fox at the centre of Guerdon's government. (She's also learning magic, under the tutelage of the formidable Dr Ramegos).

While the forces of the deranged gods advance, Guerdon is bickering over politics and religion, leading to an election, and schemes are afoot in the Haithi embassy, focussing on that nation's crown and on family succession. Oh and there is, as the quote above implies, a spy in Guerdon (actually, there are many, but this one is particularly crucial).

It all makes for a complex, atmospheric (you can almost taste the alchemical pollution that drifts on Guerdon's air...) and tactile book, the reader occupying something of a privileged position in being privy to most - but not all - of the writhing plots, which enfold and stymie one another continually (sometimes to darkly humorous effect - Guerdon's gods are widely regarded as stupid, and at one moment they carry out an act that is so misconceived and self defeating as to be near impossible to convey: fortunately I don't have to try as it would also be a huge spoiler). It's a bit Smiley meets HP Lovecraft  meets Pratchett, the latter especially in the way that stupidity, bad luck and sheer obduracy ensure those best-laid plans - whether Kelkin's, devised at his back table in the coffee house, or Lys's, intelligence chief of Haith - really do gang aft agley.

Guerdon and its world are, as ever, brilliantly realised - this is a fantasy city with a Metro system, representative democracy (oiled by generous campaign contributions) and a manufacturing sector (Guerdon thrives on its arms trade, supply both sides in the war). A city where the Gods are kept weak, lest they join the war. A world of modern naval fleets with unspeakable, alchemical weapons and undead warriors wielding ancestral, soul-hungry swords. It's hard, as I said above, to convey just how right it all seems, how natural. The characters are also excellent - Cari, who has become something like a saint (though her god is the New City, not a divine being) has taken up the foul-mouthed mantle of Saint Aleena, my favourite character from The Gutter Prayer: 'The fucking fuckers are trying to fuck with us' as she sagely observes more than once. (Note to self: redact that before submitting review to Amazon...)

In all, it's joyous mayhem with a coherent, metaphysically literate, idea of godhood and the supernatural at its centre, characters who are, even if monstrous and constrained by unspeakable fates, sympathetic - and throughout, a sense of unease, a sense that dreadful things can happen at any moment...

For more about the book, see the publisher's webpage here.

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