Priest of Bones by Peter McLean
The war at Abingon is over, but the scars remain. Thomas Piety and his small band of war brutalised ex-soldiers have no more use to the Crown now the conflict has been won- they have been set adrift, one group among many let loose in a land already devastated by famine and plague. However, these may just be luckier than most, for Thomas Piety, leader of the feared Pious Men, had certain criminal interests before the war, and once again there’s hard cash to be made in Ellinburg for those with the balls to do it. First though, they have to take back what’s theirs from a shady unknown faction bent on much more than just illegal moneymaking, threatening to bring the horror of foreign wars right to the Pious Men’s doorstep. And that just won’t do. That won’t do at all.
It takes no time at all for this fight to get going, the stakes further raised by the arrival of a Queen’s Man, a deadly agent of the Crown with their own agenda. To and fro turf battles play alongside the larger issue of malignant overseas interests, building a thrilling, savage pace that lasts right till the final page. Even so, this is not violence porn. Murder is a means to an end as well as a message, but for the most part, these are soldiers and when they want people dead, they push a sword through them. Oh, there’s flair and inventiveness too, but the brutal efficiency of it is all the more frightening. This world is dark to the core, but not gratuitously so. All the sadistic aspects of this life are there, whether as part of a character’s past or in contemporary Ellinburg society, but it’s set up pretty quickly, in the way Piety deals with one of his men attempting rape, that such transgressions will receive his own style of harsh justice. And that tends to be pretty final.
So while the book ostensibly seems like it might be straight up grim, it’s much more nuanced than that. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still lots of stabby fun, but its a long way from the nihilism that characterises true grimdark. The first person narrative has the feel of epic poetry, of Homer: a story of war and of ‘heroes’ returning to find their home changed, seized by outsiders. Piety talks directly to his audience and his voice has a preciseness to it, a kind of dry, distancing effect that clashes effectively with the bloody, personal nature of his tale. It has the repetition and musicality of oral storytelling, with him reminding us frequently of what has come before, ‘as I have written’, as any storyteller does to emphasise and focus attention. He repeatedly returns to one refrain: these are the times we live in. Both reiterations add a sense of rhythm and connectedness to his story, as well as highlighting himself and the present state of affairs as two interwoven strands, combining to produce an inevitably bloodstained pattern. It works to explain his own actions as well as those around him, but isn’t there to absolve him, or them, of responsibility. The introspection at the end certainly suggests this; in trying to prevent war, he has brought death and destruction on an unprecedented scale. What does that mean for his position in the future? I can’t wait to find out.
Above all, he is a practical man. He might be a priest, but he doesn’t hold to any kind of religious morality. Instead, he will do what needs to be done. He provides action based, effective solutions to problems, whether it be dealing with people or removing the competition with bloody finality. That’s not to say that he doesn’t have his own ethical framework. He looks after his own. His mantra is ‘the right man for the right job. And in this book, ‘man’ means anyone. He actually has a rather enlightened attitude to women and race as well as deep loyalty to those who have bled and fought for him. None of the women are treated as lesser, quite the opposite. From Gutcutter leader, Ma Aditi, to his ex-soldier aunt, Enaid, and his second, Bloody Anne, the women are capable, clever, and frightening enough to freeze your blood solid. Cross them and they’ll soon be carving you open to see just where that sort of stupid came from. It has the same kind of equal opportunities badassery as Malazan and the tone to match. Though the reader sees everything through Piety, there’s still some scope for these other characters to shine and the small amount we learn about them all only serves to whet the appetite for more.
This is a compelling blend of historical style fiction, gangland, and magic, with a fascinating main character in Thomas Piety and a voice that's thrillingly original. I have been lucky enough to read some cracking books this year, but I have no doubt this will sit high in my best-of-2018 list.
Emma Davis, 9/10
First I'd like to thank ACE books and Peter Mclean for an advance copy of this book.
A stylish, rather unique book that felt like the literary version of an action/mobster flick. The protagonist is likable, we're brought into the story deftly, you don't need to do a lot of thinking, and it's not hard to get involved and stay involved. Easy recommend for pretty much any fantasy fan looking for something on the 'light' side of darker fantasy.
A sort of lowish magic, industrial-revolution era setting. There's explosives and in theory guns and cannon, but it's basically all swords in this first urban story. For the entirety of the book we're in the dirty, industrial city of Ellinburg, and only on a few streets of it, at that. Most people are powerless and poor - ruled by several rising tiers of thugs, from low-level gangsters, to corrupt officials, to scheming nobility. There's Priests and religion, magic and witchcraft, but none of it seems to play much of a role in people's lives. In the midst of this chaos and squalor, on the bad side of famine, war and disease, the Piety boys carve out their piece of the pie.
In short: a former gangster turned soldier returns to being a gangster. His businesses have all been taken over by rivals, but with his small, loyal(ish) crew, Tomas Piety and his crazy brother intend to take it all back. Other than a small twist or two, that is indeed what you get. So I would never call this plot 'epic fantasy', it's just fantasy. For those interested in a simpler story this might be ideal.
There's a lot of them, but actually the book pulls it off rather well with nicknames and repetition. In the spirit of any good mob story, the characters are memorable (if sometimes a bit shallow), their pasts and quirks and names are fun and a big appeal of the book.
Our protagonist, Tomas Piety, leads them all through some combination of cunning, ruthlessness and charm. He's a good narrator and does pretty well convincing you of his own importance - of the inevitability of his rise. He's kind of shockingly modern in his sensibilities, particularly for a mob boss. He's not OK with drugs or violence against women, nor is he out to steal from anyone, not even the nobility. In fact he's plumb terrified of the Queen.
Probably the strongest aspect of the book. The writing really draws you in and carries the story. Tomas has a distinct voice that kept my attention, even if I was a little tired of the 'to my minds' and 'the right man for the right jobs' and the 'he was, at thats'. Ultimately, I'd be happy reading more books narrated by our Mr. Piety.
I quite enjoyed this. It's very fast, very readable, and it stuck to its plot like concrete shoes. If you're looking for an accessible, darkish fantasy, particularly if you're not a die-hard fantasy fan, this would be a great place to start.
Richard Nell, 8.2/10
I received an advance reading copy of Priest of Bones in exchange for an honest review. I would like to thank Peter McLean and Ace for the opportunity.
The crime boss, soldier, and priest Tomas Piety has spent the last three years fighting a war he was conscripted into. Although victorious, it all seems hollow with the death, destruction, plague, and famine that has ravished the land. We join Tomas and his crew of trusted mercenaries as they are venturing home, warworn and looking to return to their previous lives. Upon reaching Ellingberg- the city where Tomas and his gang the Pious Men once controlled the streets he soon realises that his businesses have been stolen whilst he has been away spilling blood and guts for his Queen. With his crew of loyal military veterans at his side, he decides it's time to reclaim what is rightfully his. It is soon unravelled that there is more going on in the city than meets the eye this time and the turf war skirmishes of his previous business regime are the least of his worries. To quote the back of the advanced reading copy "The war is not over. It's only just beginning."
I can safely say that this will be the book dark fantasy and grimdark fans will be raving about at the end of this year. It is reminiscent of McDonald's Blackwing for the mercenary crew camaraderie, Puzo's The Godfather or Lee's Jade City for the crime family intricacies, and Horowitz's House of Silk for a few very uncomfortable moments.
This narrative is presented in the first person perspective as if Tomas is dictating or writing his memories. Within the first chapter, I was gripped by the voice, the flow, and Tomas' thoughts and opinions. Essentially, being inside the mind of a crime boss, we are privy to all of his views, ambitions, agendas, and secrets which none of the other characters in the dramatis personae are. This cleverly ascertained instant empathy pulled me in and even though you'd never call Tomas an unflawed person you will more than likely be on his side throughout.
There is a pretty sizable cast of characters in Priest of Bones and for a relatively short book, I intially thought there would be too many. The way it's written as if we are following Tomas' train of thought and views makes it easy to recognise, differentiate between and feel for the wide range of many different individuals within the ensemble. Many of the players including our narrator have hidden objectives, motives and a secret past existence. As the first of a proposed trilogy, not all questions regarding the characters are answered but enough nuggets and reveals are presented that it's truly enticing although often gritty and I'm excited to find out more going forwards. Especially with reference to three of my favourite characters including Tomas' second, the scarred veteran Bloody Anne, his brother the slightly disturbed but warrior berserker Jochan, and his mysterious, cunning, and adopted 12-year-old nephew Billy the Boy. There is also a character called Cutter who is described as "a professional murderer with a mysterious past" who I can't wait to find out more about in the rest of the series. I'll point out that it is a coincidence that he shares a name with an assassin in Malazan Book of the Fallen.
McLean himself described the first entry in War for the Rose Throne as being influenced by a combination of Peaky Blinders and The Godfather, but set in Tudor-era Edinburgh crossed with Industrial Revolution London. I can readily see all these influences, however; I also analysed it as having a sort of medieval Irish twang and in addition, it features lots of fantasy greatness such as deadly magicians, named personal weapons and secret assassin groups. The world building is exquisite and it mostly takes place within Ellingberg as the Pious Men are trying to rebuild their business empire and find out more about who their opposition is. Who is this Bloodhands who is just described as a very, very scary man? I'm sure a map of the city will be featured in the final edition but McLean painted perfect imagery with his lexical choices so that it felt that I was walking down the streets of the Stink or the Wheels and even feeling as if I was with the gang drinking in the local tavern before an inevitable ruckus occurred. My only negative of this story is very minor. I felt that occasionally there was slight, in my opinion, needless repetition of statements that had been said in chapters before yet that didn't take anything away from my enjoyment. An extra point for me to mention is that this book is a complete standalone and all wraps up nicely. That being said there are enough loose threads and intrigue that it sets up the next entry expertly and I will definitely be continuing this series. There is a segment in the last chapter that hints at what may follow in book #2 and it's an exciting prospect.
I'm pretty certain Priest of Bones will be one of the finest grimdark books of the year. Dark fantasy alumni such as Mark Lawrence, Ed McDonald, and Anna Stephens have already posted glowing reviews regarding Priest of Bones and I believe it will be fans of the above mentioned who will find a lot to enjoy here. Although McLean's released the Urban Fantasy series The Burned Man previously, in Priest of Bones he has presented a brilliant debut grimdark outing that is fascinating, gripping and has everything that I look for in a crime-focused novel.
James Tivendale, 9/10
All reviews for: War for the Rose Throne
Priest of Bones
War for the Rose Throne #1
'Sixty-five thousand battle-shocked, trained killers came home to no jobs, no food and the plague. What did Her Majesty think was going to happen?'Tomas...
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