PRIEST OF BONES by Peter McLean (Book Review)
‘We fell upon them like the wrath of Our Lady.
A glorious charge, in the light of the rising sun.
It sounds so grand.
It sounds like the stuff of legends, the act of heroes. Well, we were no heroes, and we were outnumbered, and exhausted and hurt, and it was a fucking disaster.’
Priest of Bones by Peter McLean is the first book in The War for the Rose Throne series, and my god, am I kicking myself for not reading this sooner. This was a sensational read from start to finish, which solidifies my love for gangster-esque, grimdark fantasy.
Tomas Piety and his misfit crew return from the war in Abingon. They should be celebrated as war heroes, they should be praised for surviving the horrors that they have seen and been through, but that’s a far cry from what they receive. The war veterans return home to Ellingburg, a place that’s now devastated with poverty, famine and plague. Tomas Piety soon discovers that the business empire he once owned, which helped to keep his streets thriving, has now been overrun by a foreign enemy. For a man like Tomas Piety, he simply can’t let that pass.
Together with the help of his comrades from the war, Tomas resurrects his Pious Men – a once feared and respected criminal gang – to take back all that is rightfully his. What follows is a turbulent story of turf brawls, political intrigue and the fight for power. This is grimdark to its core. You see, Tomas has his own notion of justice, and may god help you if you’re on the receiving end of his wrath.
So it may seem as though Priest of Bones is yet another grimdark tale, full of gratuitous violence, and all the other characteristics which the genre can entail. You’d be wrong though. McLean takes the concepts of grimdark, and delivers them in a much more distinctive way, and I’m all for it. For example, in the opening chapter, Tomas Piety slays one of his men who attempts to rape a young girl. Yes, this is done brutally, bloodily even, and if you’re someone like me who enjoys all those stabby stabby gory action scenes, then you’ll find it as entertaining as I did. However my point is, it is not without reason; this is not violence for the sake of violence. This was a scene I certainly appreciated, because it sets the tone for the zero tolerance towards abuse, which is a significant theme throughout.
Priest of Bones is fundamentally a portrayal of trauma, or PTSD, and how the effects of that trauma shape various characters. Battle shock affects many of the Pious Men; for some, it turns them savage; others have delayed reactions, and most just want to drink away all that they have seen. The effects of the war in Abingon certainly hang heavily over the ex-soldiers. Then there are those who have suffered through childhood abuse. Truth be told, the chapters that dealt with this did make me feel uncomfortable, and it was hard to read, but it did validate why certain characters acted a certain way, and it made the retribution that much more justified. Like I said, in this book murder, bloodshed and violence. always serves a purpose.
Of late, I’ve been reading a lot of epic fantasy that covers either many worlds, or vast lands. So I thoroughly enjoyed the close-knit setting of Ellingburg, and its seedy streets filled with poverty and corruption. The portrayal of gangland warfare within Ellingburg unquestionably held shades of The Godfather and Peaky Blinders. I found this so entertaining as the former, I grew up watching continuously as I had an older brother obsessed with gangster films, and the latter, I only recently started watching because of this book. What I particularly loved though was the volatile relationship between the two brothers, Tomas and Jochan Piety, which felt so akin to the brothers in Hell or High Water, which is one of my favourite movies of all time.
To find all these elements in a book, and one with such a compelling narrative voice, felt so refreshing. I usually find it takes me a while to warm to a first person narration, but not here. Tomas Piety’s voice just reeled me in immediately. From the very beginning we see Tom is not a mindless, ruthless thug. He’s a thinker, a calculated, pragmatic character, and he’s ballsy with it too. Whereas his brother Jochan is the polar opposite; where Tomas would approach a situation with a well formed plan, Jochan would approach it with carnage and brute-force. However, even a man like Jochan has his depths, and at his heart, we see that he too suffers greatly.
‘Jochan has always been wild, but there was a feral quality to his stare now that I hadn’t seen before. I could almost see the flare of the cannon in his pupils, the clouds of dust from falling walls rolling across the whites of his eyes into corners that were as red as the rivers of blood we had waded through.’
Other memorable characters include: Billy the Boy with his intriguing magical abilities, Fat Luka with his ambiguous nature, who I couldn’t quite wholly trust, and Bloody Anne who was a force to be reckoned with. Each character fights their own personal demons. They have all suffered and through their suffering they find comradeship, and essentially find hope.
However, it is Tomas Piety who now holds a firm place in my all-time favourite anti-heroes list. He’s in good company too, with the likes of Logen Ninefingers aka The Bloody-Nine, and Glokta from The First Law trilogy, and Mad Ben Stykes from Gods of Blood and Powder trilogy, they make quite the violent Grimdark crew!
Tomas narrates Priest of Bones in the nature of an internal reflection on his life. I wholeheartedly loved this style. Even when you feel yourself questioning many of Tomas’ decisions, you still root for him nonetheless. He is charismatic, seemingly stoic, and we alone get to intimately witness Tomas at his most vulnerable, and see a tender side through his bonds with Bloody Anne and Billy the Boy, but we must remember that Tomas is essentially an anti-hero. He may hold to a personal moral code, but whether he is truly doing everything for the greater good of Ellingburg, or if his motive is solely to gain as much power as possible, remains to be seen. Soldier, businessman, criminal, priest – who is the real Tomas Piety? That is what makes Tomas have such a captivating character psyche. Maybe ultimately, he is just ‘the right man, for the right job.’
I finished Priest of Bones contemplating the turns the story had taken, trying, but failing, to decipher what could come next, and I was left wanting more. That’s on me though, because the sequel, Priest of Lies is already released, all I need to do is pick it up.