Not only did I like this book, I appreciated it. I think it's an important and timely release that serves as a warning sign and reminder of the horror from whence we came, and the danger of following in its footsteps.
We're in a state of regression. In addition to the pandemic crippling our economies, the world's collective mindset seems to be facing backward, leaning into the old behaviors that divide us. While social injustice, disgraceful political leadership, and basic intolerance of our neighbors continue to plague us, we are once again on the road to repeating the same acts of horror and suppression that we claimed to have overcome in the past century. It is times like these when artists' voices are more important than ever. Writers, musicians, comedians, filmmakers, and countless others all have the opportunity to share new ideas to remind us where we came from and where we need to go during these dark and challenging times.
Enter: Priest of Gallows. Surface level, this is another hugely entertaining read; an excellent addition to the Tomas Piety saga, who has one of the most distinct narrative voices I've encountered in literary fiction. McLean's writing hits like a two-bottle brandy hangover: easy to digest, but leaves a sour aftertaste once settled. Spending time in Piety's head is a blast: a no-bullshit, street-smart gangster with PTSD and family issues, he's nearly impossible to rattle, and keeps his thoughts and emotions closely guarded. Joining Tomas as he ascends the ranks of the rotten core of central government carries plenty of dark humor and vile acts of treachery. Great stuff.
Digging a bit deeper, it's plain to see that this is not a subtle story. McLean is firing warning shots with heavy-handed metaphors throughout this story. It almost reads like a history book. The city is set in Ellinberg, which sounds like a portmanteau of Berlin and St. Petersberg. Piety's story centers on his ascension through the Queen's Men -- essentially, the KGB -- who uses a Gulag-like torture chamber in the basement of the 'house of law,' reserved for whoever the hell the government wants to throw in there, regardless of guilt. I'll wager a guess that head torturer Ilse is a proxy for Auschwitz SS monster Irma Grese.
Dieter Vogel, Piety's boss and head of the Queen's Men, has come into power in a years-long plan similar to the Hitler he emulates. There is a group of peaceful, educated magician scholars, recognized by their seven-pointed star - symbolically close to the Star of David - who take on the role of the Jews, and become targets of genocide by Vogel's pure racism, ignorance, and hatred. Fellow Queensman Iagin is the Goebbels-like head of propaganda, while all the internal civil unrest is blamed on the neighboring Polish-like Skanians.
There were a couple of times these metaphors went over the top. There was a reference to a wall being built, and a word-for-word repetition of a popular groan-inducing phrase was touted by Piety that was far too on-the-nose. Another example was when Piety was noticing that the more indoctrinated he was becoming in his KGB-like role and the worse his actions were becoming, the more his excuses sounded like a Nazi who was 'just following orders.'
Not only did I like this book, I appreciated it. I think it's an important and timely release that serves as a warning sign and reminder of the horror from whence we came, and the danger of following in its footsteps. It's also a hell of a good time, and serves up a damn fine cliffhanger for the end of Piety's story. There's a lot of ground yet to cover, and some exciting revelations and dangling loose ends have me lined up and ready for the conclusion. But first, the liquor store is calling. I'm fresh out of brandy and I can't let that pass.
Adam Weller, 8/10
‘They say the Queen’s Warrant opens all doors, and I’m sure that’s true. In my experience though, money and respect and influence do it just as well, and more importantly, they do it quieter. Those are the levers that move the world.’
Tomas Piety is being played. Someone thinks they have his measure, that they’ve found his lever. And you know what? They’re not entirely wrong. Tomas finally has everything he ever wanted: wealth, status, power. A real dream come true. It’s been his plan right from the start. And yet... his path from the streets of Ellinburg to Dannsburg’s royal palace has brought him all the wrong attention. Now he’s caught in a web of debt and expectation, surrounded by dangerous people who feel like they are owed. And they’re not the types to take no for an answer. Tomas paid in blood to get in, he’ll have to drown the city in blood to get out...
As always, it is Tomas’ singular voice that mesmerises. You find yourself leaning in, like his tale is told in a whisper and you daren’t miss a single word. But is this the same man we know? The practical man who does things his way? I don’t think so. The ground under his feet is shaky and his harsh justice is being subsumed to someone else’s desires. It’s jarring, discordant. For the first time, I feel like I know more than he does. I’m certain he won’t let this stand forever, but he seems less sure. The stakes are rising by the day, but he’s struggling to find his feet in the far deadlier realm of politics. He’s lucky that he has Bloody Anne, I’m ever more convinced he could not continue without her. A rather dangerous position to be in. Now, war is coming. It is the ultimate fear for Piety and all those like him, soldiers ground down in the bloody streets of Abingon. The ruinous effects of war on the minds and bodies of men and women has featured powerfully in the series so far and remains front and centre here. From Piety’s own flashbacks to a new character who is trauma made flesh, this series acts as a reminder that violence has consequences. Never has that been more clear than in the dark spaces beneath Dannsburg’s streets, where atrocities are committed under the guise of ‘the greater good’. A ‘good’ later rebranded as Necessity. Then paraded through the streets as ‘truth’. Oh the parallels... This is a tale with more than a little social commentary, sharp and perfectly realised. Look what happens when... Honestly, the cynicism is splashed so liberally it should seep from the page. Despite the fact it’s far from subtle, it was one of my favourite aspects of the book. In the act of noticing, we get to share a wry smile with Tomas, a nod of the head. Yes, we see it too. Unlike us, however, Tomas might be able to do something about it... More than that, he’ll have to if he doesn’t want those same streets covered in blood instead of lies.
‘The truth is so easily drowned by the words of the majority that it counts for little, in my experience’.
My one issue with this book is that it felt like it was a set up for something bigger, more like a part one of two than a book entirely. I’m not saying this is a placeholder, but for all the action in the novel, there just wasn’t enough there for it to feel like its own story. There are few surprises and it felt... stretched (like butter scraped over too much bread). Tomas spends a good deal of time considering his options, doing little more than what he’s told. Perhaps he makes some big decisions by the end of the book, but I wanted him to have made them a hell of a lot sooner. He’s nobody’s fucking errand boy. Chafing at his chains wasn’t enough for me. But maybe I’m just being too impatient, too damn annoyed on his behalf. Vogel might sit like a spider at the heart of this, but Tomas is the kind of trouble you just can’t plan for, and I want him to rip the Provost’s perfectly crafted web to shreds.
‘Always cheat, always win.’
See you in the finale, Tomas, I can’t wait to see what you have planned...
Emma Davis, 8/10
1 positive reader review(s) in total for the War for the Rose Throne series
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