The Shadow Saint by Gareth Hanrahan
Orbit, pb, £7.37
Reviewed by John C Adams
‘The Shadow Saint’ is the second in ‘The Black Iron Legacy’ series, the prequel being ‘The Gutter Prayer’, Hanrahan’s debut novel.
As regular BFS readers will know, I’d usually begin a review with some identification of a book’s genre before moving onto a paragraph or two to detail the story’s premise and main characters. For reasons that I hope you’ll understand, I’m going to circle back round to that after I outline the basics of the plot and character. For now, let’s temporarily adopt the urban fantasy label as a baseline. It could also be thought of as slipstream.
The action is set in the city of Guerdon, and there are three main point-of-view characters: X84 (a spy whose current identity is Alic), Terevant Erevesic (a younger son of a noble family who struggles with a terrible inferiority complex concerning his elder brother) and Eladora Duttin (who brings all the self-confidence of Bridget Jones to her work as a political adviser and whose debilitating relationship with her mother is presented as the underlying reason for her serious lack of self-belief).
X84 is consistently fascinating as a portrait in espionage and infiltration of political campaigning in election time, including Eladora’s work for the Industrial Liberals Party. Eladora does grow in confidence and stature, partly due to the arrival of her feisty and independently minded cousin Carillon a quarter of the way in and partly because she recognises her own latent magical powers. Terevant faces down his own insecurities as an army officer and (later on) head of his noble family, balancing the demands of his ancestors (who speak to him in the presence of the family’s magical sword) with his sworn duty to protect the citizens of Guerdon when the invasion comes. I liked X84, but his spy work meant that I only ever glimpsed the real man behind his cover story. Terevant was brave but likeable, flawed but resilient. Eladora improved in spades after the first quarter, which was a good thing because by then even her fellow characters were drawing attention to how slowly her strength was developing.
So, genre. This book isn’t a mashup. It doesn’t fall comfortably into any single established subgenre of fantasy, although if you had to pick just one, then urban fantasy would probably come closer than any other. It’s really a fusion of multiple elements of fantasy, so many that at times it becomes a little overwhelming, into a single identity. In fact, it’s a melting pot in the best tradition of cities everywhere. I loved the way this was achieved, bringing unity to content and location.
There are swords and sorcery elements. There are also plenty of nods to epic fantasy with of pantheon of gods and goddesses intervening in the world of men and old gods competing with the new for worshippers. Like many urban fantasies, it is much more contemporary than swords and sorcery universes, with trains, guns and bombs all featuring as an integral part of the tale. The city is unashamedly modern, yet the poverty and grime of the citizens’ lives mean that the medieval features that do appear never feel out of place. Guerdon is truly timeless, in that regard. But it is not our world, not by a long way. This is a superbly detailed fictional universe that seamlessly blends myriad features of cityscapes across millennia to produce the archetypal urban landscape upon which to portray the challenging lives of those who shelter within its walls.
I can’t stress strongly enough how impressively this was achieved nor, as a reviewer, how delighted I was to encounter something truly original. Fantasy is a broad genre that is undergoing continual development and expansion, and it will have no difficulty accommodating this sort of bold inventiveness, whichever labels are applied to the story. ‘The Shadow Saint’ is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve encountered all year.
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