Title: The Gutter Prayer
Author: Gareth Hanrahan
Genre: Dark Fantasy (Steampunk-ish)
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Gareth Hanrahan borrows characterization and tropes from across fantasy and horror sub-genres, and somehow combines them into a highly original dark fantasy setting. Worldbuilding was definitely the standout feature of this book. We get to explore the seedy underbelly of the steampunk-ish (trains, guns, alchemy, etc.) old city of Guerdon, inhabited by thieves, Lovecraftian ghouls, stone men (afflicted with a disease like leprosy that slowly turns them to stone), knife-wielding wax golems, and more.
Parts of this world are locked in a horrifyingly destructive “godswar” where deities and their possessed champion “saints” rage across the land, but the city of Guerdon has managed to remain neutral and relatively safe. Of course, things can’t stay that way for long or we wouldn’t have much of a story, so the story opens on a trio of thieves and a heist that goes horribly wrong and drags them into a maelstrom of political and supernatural machinations.
The writing, aside from the worldbuilding, was good, not great. It felt like it really could have used a bit more editing. There were way too many typos and misused homonyms for a final draft, some characters’ motivations/goals didn’t quite make sense or were ill-explained, and a couple sexcapades felt wedged in and cringey. (I’m also not a fan of the “f-bomb” being dropped every few pages, but that’s more about my preferences/standards than an editing issue.)
That said, I enjoyed the book overall. It was dark without wallowing in existential angst. Some plot points were resolved in a very deus ex machina fashion, which usually annoys me, but it worked within the author’s setting. It was a mostly enjoyable first read of the year, and I already have the next one ready to go on my Kindle.
Title: Arm of the Sphinx
(The Books of Babel – Book 2)
Author: Josiah Bancroft
Genre: Kafkaesque Steampunk
Rating: 4 of 5
Future Release Date: 3/13/18 (though I’m pretty sure it has been previously released self-pub – thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for a free eARC)
The first book in this series, Senlin Ascends, was one of my favorite reads last year (review here). Senlin, now an aerial pirate captain of sorts, continues to search for his lost wife in the Kafkaesque “ringdoms” of the Tower of Babel. His mechanical-armed first mate, Edith Winters (a major secondary character from the first book), becomes at least as much of a main character as Senlin, and the other three members of his crew are sympathetically fleshed out as well.
As in the first book, the plot is a bit episodic, but builds toward a better understanding of the characters, the Tower, and, most importantly, the mysterious Sphinx whose name appears on most of the mechanical devices found in the tower. The narration continues to be light (but not farcical), and the worldbuilding and developing plot are fascinating.
Unfortunately for my personal enjoyment, some elements of the plot seem to be turning in directions that I really don’t like – highlight for *MILDLY SPOILER-Y SPECULATION*:
I can’t stand “I’m on a quest to rescue/return to my wife/lover but am going to go ahead and commit adultery along the way” stories, and we’re definitely headed that direction if nothing changes. Also, I’m not a fan of taking biblical stories/concepts and flipping them around to make God (or his analog) the evil tyrant and we might be heading in that direction.
*END MILDLY SPOILER-Y SPECULATION*
I’m more than willing to keep going with the series once the next book comes out, but I really hope it doesn’t go the direction I think it will.
Title: Senlin Ascends
Author: Josiah Bancroft
Rating: 4.5 of 5
Future Release Date: 1/16/18 (though I’m pretty sure it has been previously released self-pub. Thanks to NetGalley for an eARC!)
Steampunk usually has a Victorian England-ish setting and rests on a premise like “this is what the world would be like if Babbage had actually built the clockwork/steam computers he invented.” This steampunkish book goes much farther back for our point of divergence…apparently in this world God never stopped the construction of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) and it has become the pillar (or possibly sinkhole) of culture and civilization.
In this world we meet Senlin, a young idealistic schoolmaster reminiscent of Voltaire’s Candide in his optimism and naivete (with a side order of smug fussiness). He arrives at the Tower with his new wife and his trusty Everyman’s Guide to the Tower of Babel (a book almost but not entirely unlike The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). The honeymoon quickly descends into a Kafkaesque nightmare as he is separated from his wife and begins working his way up the Tower in hopes of finding her.
For the sake of spoilers, I won’t tell any more of the plot or setting since exploring the surreal hodgepodge world of the Tower with it’s stacked “ringdoms” is part of the fun. Let’s just say that as Senlin ascends the tower, his idealistic vision of the Tower as a shining beacon of culture and his bright-eyed trust in humanity go in the other direction.
For all that, I didn’t find this to be a grindingly depressing book. The author has a light, slightly sarcastic touch and has you rooting for Senlin as he becomes a sadder, wiser man. The book does not offer much resolution to the main plot (there appears to be plenty more Tower to ascend), but I enjoyed the journey enough that I’m not even mad…I’m glad there’s much more to come of this fascinating world. This quirky book just might make my top five list for the year!