McLean has crafted a memorable anti-hero in Tomas Piety, with a varied cast of criminals and enough cutting dialogue to make Elmore Leonard proud.
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
9.0 / 10
-- Emma Davis
"Everyone has a lever that moves them, and everyone has their weakness, too. If you can’t find the lever to move someone, then you find the weakness, and you take hold of it, and you squeeze until they break."
Tomas Piety is a man that deals in absolutes. There is no ‘might, may,’ or ‘possibly’ in his vocabulary; things either are or they aren’t. He’s a simple man, really: some things he can let pass, and other things he cannot. For the things he cannot, he dispenses harsh justice. Sometimes harsh justice comes from his twin short swords, Mercy and Remorse, other times it can be much, much worse. Respect, power, and authority are the levers that move him, and the ends always justify the means… but the means have consequences. We followed his meteoric rise to power in taking back his city in Priest of Bones, but now the past is starting to catch up with him in the excellent sequel, Priest of Lies. There is a cost for the innocent blood Tomas and his Pious Men have shed. And one day, in one of the best scenes of the series so far, the cost comes knocking on his doorstep.
McLean wisely takes Piety out of his comfort zone in this book, both figuratively and literally. As the cost of his actions take a toll on Piety and his men, Tomas is forced to reckon with a new environment where he lacks his usual respect and power. It’s an interesting change to see how he reacts in situations where he doesn’t have his support network to rely on. We witness him evolve and learn more about himself, while realizing and accepting what kind of person he is.
There are so many things that this book excels at, but first and foremost is the McLean’s prose. The narrative voice of Tomas Piety is brilliantly written; much like how Piety addresses his men, his words are economical yet carry an understated strength. There is almost a complete lack of metaphors, as Piety speaks in a precise, direct language. It is a commanding, decisive language that catapults the reader ever forward. This book is so addictive that I’m convinced it is laced with the same poppy resin that the nobles score from the Golden Chains.
Although he’s a ruthless gangster who has killed countless innocents, Piety still tries to rule with his own sense of justice when his hand isn’t being forced. Unlike his rivals who base their rule on fear, Piety commands respect from his streets and ensures that his racketeering protection money does indeed protect his people. Honor, though? Where has honor ever gotten anyone? As his old captain used to say in the war, “Always cheat. Always win.”
"Fuck idealism. Where had that ever got anyone? Duty, honor, love. Fuck it all."
I can only guess as to the accuracy of its depiction, but the episodes of trauma-induced stress (known here as ‘battle shock’) that the soldiers experience was handled admirably. Piety’s brother Jochan appears to experience the worst of it over time, and its effects are exacerbated when he and other former soldiers find themselves in the midst of heavy gang violence. They all experienced the same untold horrors of war in recent years, and all have been forever scarred by it. It is something that they cannot ever hope to escape, but perhaps it can be managed. Battle shock drives some men away from the life, but for others like Jochan, it drives them deeper into madness, grief, and the bottle.
There is a wide cast of characters in the story, and I was impressed at how well developed they were – especially due to only seeing through Tomas’ point of view. “The right man for the right job” is one of Piety’s favorite adages, so it is on him to know which tool to use in which situation. There are many memorable characters like Luka, the chief minister of propaganda and social influence, or Ailsa a ruthless manipulator who does anything and everything for the crown. Bloody Anne is another favorite, acting as Piety’s second and perhaps his only true friend. There are dozens more, and they all have their place in the story, their own agency and goals. It’s remarkably impressive for a book that’s relatively short by modern fantasy standards.
It took me five days total to tear through both Priest of Bones and Priest of Lies. That should be enough of an endorsement in and of itself. McLean has crafted a memorable anti-hero in Tomas Piety, with a varied cast of criminals and enough cutting dialogue to make Elmore Leonard proud. This series is a grimdark delight, and I’m already jonesing for my next fix.
9.2 / 10
-- Adam Weller
9.1/10 from 1 reviews
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