Priest of Bones by Peter McLean
The Good: Colourful characters, grimdark gangsters and good ‘guys’ (and girls!) with grit, and a page turner of a plot packing plenty of pace and punchy prose.
The Bad: Several reviews have laboured the ‘this seems familiar’ point as a negative, but for me it wasn’t – it was remarkably refreshing as a ‘read’ rather than a ‘watch on tv’, and though I do admit the validity of the point (in comparison to Peaky Blinders), I actually thought of Priest of Bones as a ‘new age homage’ set in a fantasy world rather than a straight lift and shift.
The Ugly Truth: Anti-heroic fantasy at its finest. If I had to sum this book up in two words it would be: grimdark gangsters. Actually, no. Gritdark gangsters. Of course there’s parallels to other gangster-media (namely Peaky Blinders and The Godfather) but that’s because Priest of Bones takes everything (IMHO) that you know and love about the ‘genres’ and repackages them. Not in the way of a con-artist selling imitation goods, mind you, but of a master blackmarketeer, offering up the ‘next big thing’ before its official release. And this is going to be the next big thing!
Ever open a book and within the first few lines know that:
- You’re going to love it
- It’s not just ‘telling’ a story, it’s ‘speaking to you’
- You’re not going to sleep until you finish it
Priest of Bones did this in 3 lines for me.
Actually, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the first sneaking sensation came upon me as I read the cast list.
As readers we are introduced to Tomas Piety and his band of not-so-merry men (and women!) as they return from war. Soldiers scarred physically but more mentally (and accurately so) whose return to civilian life is going to come crashing down around their ears.
Tomas is not your average crook. Nor is he your usual uniform soldier. And he’s certainly not the smock and crock priest you’d normally think of. This is a story about gangsters. But…
He’s not a thief, nor is he a conman. Neither is he a dealer, a brigand, or a bully. He’s more than that. Tomas claims to be a business man, and he is – he stakes claim to multiple businesses, from brothels to bars, but still, he is more than that. One scene in particular stands out to me in this regard. I won’t spoil it but the scene in which Tomas makes an ‘entrance’ (you’ll know it when you read it) sums him up perfectly.
Tomas Piety is a boss.
And not just a ‘boss’ as soldiers refer to a commanding officer they have struck up a rapport with, nor is he a ‘boss’ as in crimeboss of a syndicate. Tomas Piety is a boss, not because he tells others what to do, or because he’s top of the food chain. He’s a boss because he gets sh*t done.
Talking about soldiers and gangsters, McLean nails the ‘squad mentality’ of soldiers, at least in my experience in the military and having spent some time ‘policing’ gangs(ters) and underworld elements. I could draw more parallels between Tomas’ crew and other well-known groups/bands beyond those mentioned here and elsewhere – it certainly hit a few Glen Cook’s Black Company notes for me – but only to emphasise the point that Priest of Bones takes what you know and love and breathes new and fresh life into it.
Which brings me on to the characters. Every member of Tomas’ gang and the wider Priest of Bones cast list is distinct and different. The cast is a ‘who’s who’ of the usual and unusual suspects, but being a fan of the underdogs (and there are many) my favourites include: Eland (sir), Cutter, Old Kurt and Rosie.
I also really enjoyed the break away from ‘world ending’ epic fantasy with Priest of Bones, with the plot focusing on the events being played out within a single city (specifically within neighbourhoods which act as ‘turf’ for the ‘turf war’ parts of the plot). This locality, and the plot, keeps the book focused, tightly packed, and makes Priest of Bones one hell of a page turner.
I’ve read other reviews that debate this book’s remit ‘as a homage’ to other gangster media such as the Godfather and Peaky Blinders. There’s no denying the obvious influences and parallels, nor is there denying the fact that the Godfather is a classic, and Peaky Blinders is nouveau. However, Priest of Bones takes the gangster story and tells it for a modern audience. More than that, it brings it (and all fantasy sub-genres) to a new audience. This is proper gateway fantasy stuff here, people. Those of you that follow me on twitter might have seen my recent attempt to convert my wife into a fantasy fan. To say that this book is on her own fledgling ‘TBR’ is really saying something.
In closing, Priest of Bones blew me away. Heck, for me, this is one of the best books I’ve read this year and (despite this being Pete’s 4th published novel) this is one of my top debuts of 2018.