Priest of Lies by Peter McLean

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Rating 9.0/10

It’s been six months and Ellinburg is a changed place. But not enough and not where it counts. The Godsday butcher’s bill had been far too high, the war wasn't even won. And Tomas Piety is starting to realise that it might never be, especially while ensnared in the political machinations of the Queen’s Men. He’s trapped twice over, with no way out except through. Still, he’s not one to let life pass him by. Every challenge is also an opportunity after all. So many issues can be solved with the right attitude and a ready blade.

As in the first book, the narrative feels like a mix of oral storytelling and confession. It has the techniques of epic poetry and the immediacy of conversation. The repetition, the real time internal reflection, the sense of an invitation into the sharing of secrets... it all adds up to a story told directly to you, the reader, the friend. It’s personal and intimate, framed exclusively though Tomas Piety, and so deeply reflective of his experience and morality that it works as subtle, or sometimes not so subtle, persuasion. It’s the kind of writing that makes you complicit. As he tells it, it seems so obvious that the answer to encroachment on his territory is death, that the answer to insult is death, that the answer to betrayal is death… And so when people name him ‘devil’, there’s an instinctive reaction to say ‘no…you don’t understand. He has to do this. It’s the right thing, necessary, practical. You’d do the same. Wouldn’t you?’ He’s the best of bad options, a man with his own code, a guardian. He’s also a killer, a gangster, a liar, a spy. Every now and then there’s just an inkling that something doesn’t feel quite right, a moment of disquiet about whether you’re really on the right side of this. It’s a question reflected within the plot. There are no easy answers here, for Piety and his crew as much as for us readers. Tomas wonders about his role as we wonder about him. His ‘harsh justice’ does seem like real justice, right up until you think about it some more. What’s worse is that it’s hard to care, his personal appeal smashes right through any moral barriers. That mix of modern sensibilities, an anti-rape policy, gender, sexual, and ethnic equality, and a gang run as a meritocracy, with classics like loyalty and respect is a killer. And it’s ok for us because we’re in, part of the crew, under that umbrella of protection. As for those who aren’t, well…bad luck I guess???!

There are surprises here. Violence, of course, but emotion too. These ex-soldiers are suffering, even as brutal violence is dished out by their hands. The Hell of Abingon is a trauma hanging over them all and it becomes ever more clear that some people are losing themselves to it. How this unceasing war is going to be fought by men barely hanging on to their sanity is a troubling question. What happens if they snap? What happens if Tomas does? There’s no peace in sight. In fact, there’s a serious escalation in the power and reach of Piety’s enemies, and in their ‘quality’. The nobility have arrived on the scene and their games might play out differently, but they’re no less dangerous. For the first time, there’s a look outside the Pious Men’s streets, all the way out to Dannsburg. While the story perhaps loses some of its heart in taking itself away from most of the characters we know and love, it’s an important step in filling in the details of the overarching narrative. It’s not wasted time. Tomas needs to know exactly what kind of game he’s playing, and who else is involved. His interactions with high society are genuinely funny too, the conflict between their condescending and dismissive attitudes, especially about his low birth, with his utter refusal to give a shit about it plays out so well. Saying that, one particular introduction makes Tomas seem like a cuddly teddy bear in comparison, imagine that. Better the devil you know, that’s for sure. Except the blood-soaked ending tells us something new, that we might not know him as well as we think…

This is one of the few series I’ve read where I have zero clue where or how it’s going to end. Or even what the stops are going to be on the way. What even is this book? I don’t know, I don’t care, I’m here for it, forever. Whatever the best of low fantasy is, this is it. It’s got such a crazy distinctive voice, a kind of through a glass darkly feel that is intriguing and unsettling in equal measure. More than that, it’s proper fun. I blasted through the book in a few hours, completely lost in this world. If anyone was worried about whether the pace and quality would falter in the follow up, reassure yourselves: Priest of Bones was one of the best of 2018, Priest of Lies will be one of the best of 2019. No doubt. And there’s so much more to come. 

ARC via NetGalley

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