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: Night Watch
Author: Sergei Lukyanenko
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Rating: 3.5 of 5
The age-old war between light and darkness is on hold…kind of. In an effort to limit the massive loss of human life that has occurred down through the centuries, the agents of light and darkness (the Others – whose ranks include vampires, werewolves, seers, magicians, etc.) have agreed to a treaty in which direct intervention by either side is severely limited. The goal is to preserve the current balance of light and darkness, and to this end the Night Watch (light ones who keep an eye on the dark ones) and Day Watch (dark ones who keep an eye on the light ones) were formed. The situation results in behind-the-scenes scheming and maneuvering that is reminiscent of a Cold War spy novel (but with magic).
Because the author and characters are Russian, the novel centers around the activities of Russia’s Night and Day watches and takes place mostly in and around Moscow. Seeing a completely different culture/worldview added a lot of interest to the story for me.
The magic system includes another dimension (“the twilight”) that is explained in some detail. However, for the most part there isn’t a tremendous effort to explain how magic works, and it seems to come in many varieties (which I am fine with).
The overall conflict of Light vs. Dark is frequently said to be Good vs. Evil, but the Light side can be pretty morally ambiguous. It’s really more Altruism vs. Selfishness where Altruism can be coldly manipulative and calloused toward individuals as long as what it does is for the greater good. The self-serving dark ones come off as more honest and less damaging than the “altruistic” light ones…it felt like Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness played out as fantasy. While providing interesting moral dilemmas (that our main character wrestles with ad nauseum) it also made the book a bit preachy and despairing. I’ll probably pick up the next book at some point, but I’ve had enough of the “Good is weak and possibly illusory” philosophy for a bit.