20 May 2021

#Review - The Broken God by Gareth Hanrahan

Cover by Thea Dumitriu

The Broken God (Black Iron Legacy, Book Three)
Gareth Hanrahan
Orbit, 20 May 2021
Available as: PB, 578pp, e
Read as: Advance PB copy supplied by the publisher
ISBN(PB): 9780356514369

I'm SO grateful to Orbit for an advance copy of one of my most anticipated books of 2021.

The Broken God follows from The Gutter Prayer and The Shadow Saint, chronicling the prosperous manufacturing and trading city of Guerdon - a place where commerce, magic and industry mingle easily. The Godswar has finally come to Guerdon, but in contrast to the apocalyptic impact visited on other battlefields, an uneasy truce has been brokered with different areas of the city occupied by forces from Haith (a Northen power based on necromancy), Ishmere (home to mad gods) and Lyrix (a nation of pirates and dragons).

Action in The Broken God is chiefly focussed on Cari (Carillon Thay, who featured in Book 1, with less of a part in Book 2) and on Rasce, the human amanuensis of one of those dragons, who has been planted in Guerdon to reap the profits of the occupation ('The dragon takes what he wants'). Cari has left Guerdon carrying an ancient tome of magic (AKA 'the f****ng book') to trade her way into the wizard city of Khebesh where she hopes to find a cure for her friend Spar, who was turned into a new part of the city at the end of Book 1 (keep up!) 

Cari's journey spirals into disaster, with an ally of the dragons chasing her for vengeance, power-hungry alchemists chasing her to find out what she's made of (literally) and exploit her connection to Spar, and... well, another old enemy also chasing her for vengeance (she killed a goddess). Rasce's story is like a supernatural twist on The Godfather - the dragons very much run their own organisation within the Lyrixian forces. It's all very family, with Rasce serving the dragon called Great-Uncle, who sets clear expectations of profit (the dragon takes what he wants). Soon, Rasce is allying with elements in Guerdon's restless underclasses of thieves and ghouls to seek power and wealth. 

Hanrahan uses these two very different strands adroitly to keep the reader guessing, and the story flowing, both echoing and undercutting the style and themes of the first two books. The goings-on in Guerdon, featuring Rasce but also an espionage sub-plot as the authorities of the city try to tame him, reminded me more of the first book (which introduced Cari, Spar and their ghoul friend, Rat, in a doomed heist attempt) than the second (which largely followed the Haithi in their power plays). Again, there's more behind what happens than is apparent at first. Cari's adventures are rather different again - away from Guerdon and facing new threats from ragged gods, there is a real sense of her diminishment. Cari's lost the power that her bond with Spar gave her, and she's vulnerable again. In that vulnerability we discover a lot about Cari's history, her time as a sailor and why she fled Guerdon that first time. The world has changed since then, and a lot of what she remembers is now lost - when she discovers fragments of that early life, will they help her, or lead her into sentimentality and danger?

It's hard to convey the sense in this book of hard, or no, choices, of taint, a kind of moral culpability which infects everyone, Cari included, to some degree. There are really no heroes, only opponents. And there are no villains (one or two fairly minor characters excepted, perhaps) - only more opponents. Artolo, for example, wants revenge on Cari. He behaves in a pretty unpleasant way, but then Cari did cut off his fingers. Cari, equally, is ready to bargain with unspeakable horrors and to aid them, if it will get her into Khebesh. Rasce isn't all bad: the Guerdon thief Baston, who allies with him, tells himself that Rasce might be persuaded to serve a noble purpose - and justifies compromise in pursuit of that. The book conveys a unique atmosphere of shiftiness, compromise, failure, and decay. 

Behind all this - somewhere - are the dreadful Black Iron Gods, and the tyrannical gods of Ishmere, but this is a world where people think they know how to deal with gods. Gods, here, are a kind of technology and none are so wild or so dangerous that somebody won't try to make use of them. The profusion of divinity emphasises, rather than overshadowing, human motivations, plots and struggles - while raising the stakes, the consequences of success or failure. If the gods are a technology, it's a deadly technology, a sort of nuclear-level dangerous technology which can leave whole lands haunted by monstrosities and fragments of jostling realities, a landscape worse than if it were simply made sterile. That's the world that Cari's struggling to travel through, subject to one horror after another, and it is a bad place to be, but the really scary truth she has to face is the ruin she seems to bring and the guilt that comes from that when the consequences come home to those she thinks of as friends.

The law of the Black Iron Gods seems to be the law of unintended consequences, of good intentions gone sour, of enmeshed and conflicting interests, of chains of events that nobody can foresee or control. It makes reading The Broken God into a fascinating, addictive and haunting experience where a distaste for what almost everyone is doing is finely balanced with a sneaking desire for them to push on further. To betray. To devastate. 

The reader becomes complicit with what's happening, awful though it is.

It's the sort of book which, after you've finished it, doesn't so much make you feel unclean, as in need of an exorcism. In short, then, wonderful stuff, and a series that shows so signs of flagging, rather of really getting going. I can't recommend it too strongly.

For more information about The Broken God, see the publisher's website here

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