It’s a dangerous thing, to choose the lesser of two evils.
The war is over, and army priest Tomas Piety finally heads home with Lieutenant Bloody Anne at his side. When he arrives in the Stink, Tomas finds that his empire of crime has been stolen from him while at war. With his gang of Pious Men, Tomas will do whatever it takes to reclaim his businesses. But when he finds himself dragged into a web of political intrigue once again, and is forced to work in secret for the sinister Queen’s Men, everything gets more complicated.
When loyalties stretch to the breaking point and violence only leads to violence, when people have run out of food, and hope, and places to hide, do not be surprised if they have also run out of mercy. As the Pious Men fight shadowy foreign infiltrators in the backstreet taverns and gambling dens of Tomas’s old life it becomes clear; the war is not over.
It is only just beginning.
To put it in the fewest words possible, Priest of Bones is to The Godfather and Peaky Blinders what The Lies of Locke Lamora was to heist movies.
I have to admit, I’m a sucker for when an author takes a genre or aesthetic that I’m familiar with from TV or cinema, and translates that into a fantasy novel. It lends a sense of familiarity to the work, and if the author is good enough, then the book can still feel fresh and unique enough to be its own thing.
Let’s get something straight: Peter McLean is definitely good enough.
Priest of Bones is the story of Tomas Piety, a crime boss who returns from war to find that his former operations are in ruins. The Pious Men—once a feared and respected crime family—are now pretty much non-existent. Piety decides to rebuild his empire with the help of his new friends from the war, but it soon becomes clear that gangsters and soldiers are not one and the same.
Much of the book follows Piety and his men as they seek to win back his businesses — namely boarding houses, whore houses, and gambling houses. There’s a lot of action, a lot of fighting, and just a touch of magic. The plot is fairly linear, with only a few twists and turns, but I never really got the feeling that this was a plot-oriented book. It leans a little more to the character side. It’s not deep and explorative, it’s more… meandering and observant. The first person perspective puts us inside Tomas Piety’s head, and little by little we learn more about who he is and what drives him as the story moves on.
I talk a lot about the importance of narrative voice when I review grimdark books, and I would be doing the author a disservice if I didn’t talk a little about that here. Tomas Piety’s personality bleeds through the pages of this book; his voice is distinct and infectious. McLean has done a tremendous job in constructing such an evocative manner of speaking, such that reading Priest of Bones feels less like reading a book, and more like your local hardman is telling you his life story down at the boozer.
But then, Piety isn’t the only character. While some first-person novels can make the side characters feel like furniture, Priest of Bones has a diverse and eclectic cast of characters with a range of quirks and personalities. There’s Bloody Anne, Piety’s Lieutenant turned closest confidant; Jochan, his disturbed and violent brother; Ailsa, a barmaid among… other things; and Billy the Boy, a 12-year-old orphan who has been touched by the Goddess.
Oh, and there’s a psychopath called Kant the Cunt. Just thought I should mention that.
Being a grimdark book, Priest of Bones does deal with some darker subjects, including child abuse and PTSD. It doesn’t glorify in the sordid details, however, and there’s a bit of a… twisted nobility to the book. Tomas Piety might be a crime lord and a murder, but he’s also a priest, and he thinks of himself as a good man. From the very first chapter it is clear that sexual assault is Not Fucking Okay in his eyes, and he’ll take extreme measures to ensure such things don’t happen under his watch.
To sum it all up, this was a bloody fantastic book that wouldn’t look out of place among the “grimdark royalty” of Martin, Abercrombie, and Lawrence. For anyone looking for another 5 star low fantasy story, or anyone who is a fan of mafia/crime movies and TV shows, I’d recommend that you pick up Priest of Bones as soon as you can.
Thank you to Jo Fletcher Books for providing a copy of this title via NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.