The Shadow Saint by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan – Book Review

Series: The Black Iron Legacy # 2
Published by: Orbit
Genre: Dark Fantasy, Grimdark, High Fantasy
Pages: 567
Format: e-book
Review Copy Courtesy of NetGalley

If you haven’t read The Gutter Prayer and don’t know if you want to, read my review of it here.

The Gutter Prayer was an exceptional debut – no matter how hard I thought about the story, I couldn’t find anything wrong with it! In The Shadow Saint, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan opens up Guerdon to all-new existential threats, which our cast of new and returning heroes are sorely lacking in preparation for; while some characters were dearly missed, their absence keenly felt at one time or another, the cast swells with memorable new names.

I spoke last time of how Guerdon was akin to a living being, a city of immense character equalled by Dickens’ London in Bleak House, for example; what I had not foreseen back when I first drew the comparison was that one of the major characters of the first novel would literally transform into a large part of the city. Following the Gutter Miracle which took place during the culmination of the first novel, Guerdon has undergone a transformation; the so-called New City is a triumph of one man’s will, an organism made of stone with a benevolent will of its own. But some things remain the same:

Feverish, pugnacious, the city is alive in a way she hasn’t seen since before the Crisis. She can almost forget that, less than a year ago, this square was besieged by monsters. When the gutters ran with blood, and the sky filled with vengeful gods.

Time and again, Hanrahan shows mastery over character voice. Eladora’s introspections are an academic’s curiosity through and through (I would know); the spy, meanwhile, thinks exactly as a spy would, studying every angle, observing every situation, looking always for an edge to gain on everyone else for his own purposes. His masks take on a life of their own, personas he puts on and then discards. Some stick, however, and this allows us to touch upon a topic of great interest to me – just when does pretense turn to reality? The spy’s point of view is masterful – not since Sins of Empire have I come across such a compelling shadow operative. And this one, with all due respect to Brian, would run circles around Michel. 

The Haithian, Terevant’s, way of viewing the world is that of a poet in a soldier’s uniform. I adored the story of this failed officer, a failed younger scion of the powerful Everesic family, as he sought to redeem himself in the eyes of kin and country, only to realize…but no, that would spoil something, wouldn’t it? “He dislikes feeling hollow. He wants to be on his way already, to fill himself with purpose.”  Terevant has a lot going for him, and his storyline is satisfying from beginning to end.

I took great pleasure in Eladora’s stolen moments of thaumaturgical studies, the magic system Hanrahan employs is interesting and costly to the caster:

She clenches her first, slowly, imagining the spell paralyzing a target, holding them in unseen chains of sorcery- but then she loses control, the magic slipping through her fingers. For a moment, her hand feels like she’s thrust it into an open fire, the unseen chains suddenly turned to molten metal, her skin blistering. A spell gone awry can discharge unpredictably – if she swallows the power she’s drawn down, she can ground it inside her body, risking internal damage. If she lets it go, she might ignite something, and this cramped backroom in the IndLib’s parliamentary office is crammed with papers and books.

But a little magic is far from the most interesting skill Eladora acquires. Her evolution through The Shadow Saint marks the best character arc Hanrahan has written yet and I look forward to seeing how it’ll resolve in the third book of the series. There’s a lot of her former teacher Ongent in Eladora – as much, perhaps, as the effects of the Thay blood she was so uncomfortable with, in The Gutter Prayer.

The spy – his endgame is such a good fucking mystery. I’m proud of calling his true identity about mid-way through. Still there was plenty to surprise me, and I wish, I really wish I could gush about how cool all of it is – but I dare not.

What I missed, more than anything else, was the active part the Alchemists’ guild previously took in the political and social life of Guerdon. The horrid Tallowmen are gone, and so are the other vat-grown monstrosities that so chilled and thrilled me and many others. A little something was teased out towards the end of the novel, to do with a certain alchemist who appeared  previously – which gives me hope that this most devious of players on Guerdon’s political board will make her return before all is said and done.

The Keeper Church, meanwhile, features prominently throughout. I, like Eladora, missed Aleena, the fuming, cursing, flame-wielding saint of the Church; the Keeper Gods have kept busy after her fall, and have made themselves a fair amount of crazy idiot saints. Fanatics, plenty of fanatics – and you’ll love to hate them, just as I did.

I appreciated what Hanrahan showed us of the world outside the city of Guerdon – the necromantic empire of Haith, a place in which the dead have long since outnumbered the living, once the greatest power in the world – now in retreat before an enemy that defies even their countless undead hordes; glimpses of Ishmere, with their mad gods, thirsty for ever greater expansion. Oh, and a cartel ran by dragons is a thing. Wicked, I know.

Supporting character, whether new or returning ones, left an impression. Politician and reformist Effro Kelkin makes a return after his miraculous survival, attempting to finagle his way back to power. I love the man, and this description encapsulates everything great about his character: “He manages to be simultaneously the wily old trickster who knows how to pull every lever and work every cheat in the system, and the firebrand who’s going to burn it all down and build something better…A better tomorrow, if only you’ll believe in him – and yourself. No guilds, no gods – just honest hard work, charity and integrity.” Great character, possibly born in the wrong world. Other supporting characters I cheered for include the Haithian war hero Olthic, brother to Terevant, who works to make an ally of Guerdon, no matter the results of the oncoming election; a career politician who switches affiliations faster than I switch hairstyles; Ramegos, a brilliant thaumaturgist whose knowledge is indispensable to the IndLibs and Eladora alike; and Emlyn, a child-saint whose story is intricately linked to that of the spy.

I continue to fall in love with this world and characters, the more I think about them. As I revisit the hundred passages I’ve highlighted for one reason or another, I am awed by the mastery Hanrahan shows – in quality of his prose, in the mastery of voice, in the deep worldbuilding he’s woven into this story of saints and mad gods. This is my book of January 2020, no doubt about it. My score for The Shadow Saint is 5/5 stars. The Black Iron Legacy series is worth every hour you’ll put into it, every minute. Every fucking second.

This review was originally published over at Booknest.eu.

Book Review: Arm of the Sphinx by Josiah Bancroft

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(Minor Spoilers Ahead)

Senlin Ascends (review herewas an excellent first act in Josiah Bancroft’s fully realized and fleshed out world, with intricate characters and a number of mysteries which set the imagination on fire. Originally self-published in 2015, Arm of the Sphinx came to be re-released by Orbit this March, in preparation for The Hod King which is coming out in September 2018. After reading this book, I’m beyond excited to get my hands on it! That said, I’m getting ahead of myself and so, let’s jump right into the review!

Plot:

Picking up a few months after the end of Bancroft’s first novel, Arm of the Sphinx sees our main characters scrapping by outside the Tower, living the life of gentlemen(and women!) pirates, only taking a fifth or a tenth of whatever the cargo of their victims’ ships is. Not terribly efficient as far as piracy goes, with our daring airship crew often going to bed with empty stomachs and always on high alert. The enemies made in the last novel are nothing if not tenacious, after all, and although our heroes start off free and outside the Tower, the problem now is: how do they get back in? It’s a problem that gets compounded pretty early on in the story and in a funny way, too, but with some serious life-or-dead consequences.

In the previous book, Senlin ascended(hah!) through several of the ringdoms, starting from the Market at the base of the Tower all the way to New Babel, experiencing a number of the Tower’s hospitalities during the climb. Arm of the Sphinx cuts the number of ringdoms Senlin and his crew visit to The Silk Gardens, which continues the tradition of introducing strange environments into the greater whole that is The Tower of Babel. Other areas also figure into the novel, of course, but I won’t name them for fear of spoiling some of the enjoyment. Suffice to say, no small part of the novel takes place in the air outside the Tower itself and the crew dynamics on the Stone Cloud are a welcome addition!

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Themes and Characters:

The Arm of the Sphinx differs from Senlin Ascends in that the focus is no longer on Senlin alone. A number of PoVs now follow the rest of Senlin’s crew as well, offering us readers several different perspectives on how each of the Stone Cloud’s crewmates thinks and engages with the world and their peers. While I’ve immensely enjoyed my time lurking in Senlin’s head, the switch-up makes for a nice change of pace and develops characters I loved seeing on the sidelines in the previous novel.

The novel has a lighter tone than its predecessor, which is something of a plus. The oppressive start to Senlin Ascends and our protagonist’s inability to deal with the reality he found himself in didn’t quite make for light reading, back at the start of Ascends. A big part of this is the Stone Cloud’s crew, with Voleta deserving a special mention; she might, in fact, be my favourite tree-climbing, vent-crawling adrenaline junkie in all of fiction! Something about her, the way she enjoys her freedom as well as just how much she grows during the events of this second novel is absolutely wonderful.

What about Senlin’s character development? I’m as happy with it as can be! Senlin, occasionally going by the name of Captain Tom Mudd, continues to develop due to external factors while nevertheless keeping true to a unique philosophy about life and knowledge that no one else in the whole Tower seems to have. His choices serve to create a contrast between Senlin and everyone else while speaking of a moral core which equips him with the tools necessary to combat the Tower’s influence time and time again.

Something that deserves a mention, theme-wise, is the philosophy within Arm of the Sphinx. Books continue to play a key role and for all the right reasons; each chapter starts off with epigraphs from in-universe novels or diaries. A conflict this novel sets up is the dangers of education versus those of illiteracy — the literate man from outside the Tower can be naive to a fault like Senlin was at his journey’s beginning. At the same time, the lack of knowledge as to the ‘why’ behind the Tower’s existence is a great danger of its own. This is far from the only philosophical undercurrent of the novel, but I would be loathe to give up much more for all of you who haven’t had the pleasure to experience the mysteries the Tower of Babel offers.

Conclusion and Score:

I am unbelievably happy to say that Arm of the Sphinx doesn’t suffer from the expectations  Senlin Ascends created. I loved Arm every step of the way: the start, the middle, and the brutal ending which demands I pre-order The Hod King! This novel gave me the feels, as kids nowadays say. All the feels.

It’s a great second act which reveals a dozen mysteries and sets up many, many more. Arm of the Sphinx subverted my expectations, confused and thrilled me in all the right ways, never frustrating in a negative way. The language is once again excellent, the dialogue witty and entertaining to no end.

The score I gave this on Goodreads is five out of five stars!  I also grant this novel two out of two Sphinx arms, as well as a whole bag of steampunk-y devices and knick-knacks!

Buy it, read it, enjoy it, gush about it on the Internet. I just did, and I’m much the better for it!