Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books
Publication Date – 2 October 2018
For those looking for some down and dirty fantasy crime, look no further than Priest of Bones, the new release from fantasy author Peter McLean, which provides the reader with a dark, violent and downright entertaining story.
After achieving victory in a devastating war, thousands of soldiers begin the long and weary journey back home through a countryside ravished by war, plague and famine. Among those soldiers returning to the industrial city of Ellinburg is Thomas Piety, priest of Our Lady of Eternal Sorrows and leader of a small and loyal band of killers. Thomas has taken his duty as a soldier and a priest seriously, but now it is time for him to return to what he knows best: crime.
A successful crime lord before his conscription, Thomas believed he had left his territory in capable hands. However, upon his return he discovers that his entire criminal empire has been taken over by a new gang that appears to have origins outside of Ellinburg. With no choice but to reclaim what is his, Thomas and his soldiers, including his loyal sergeant, Bloody Anne, and his damaged brother, Jochan, do what they do best and go to war.
As Thomas and his gang, the Pious Men, reclaim territory and re-establish themselves in Ellinburg, they begin to realise that they are facing an opponent far more dangerous than the usual gangs and criminals of the city. Their opponents are organised, have the best weapons money can buy and even have a couple of magic users. To make matters worse, Thomas finds himself entrapped by one the deadly Queen’s Men, the feared order of spies and assassins loyal to queen, who have some special plans for the Pious Men. Now, Thomas and his soldiers must embark on a dangerous and bloody crusade against the other gangs of Ellinburg. Victory will mean control of the city’s crime, while defeat will spell doom for them all.
Priest of Bones is an excellent example of fantasy crime fiction done right as McLean has produced a story that is action-packed, incredibly intriguing and very enjoyable. McLean has been writing fantasy for a few years and is probably best known for The Burned Man series, an urban fantasy crime series that focused on a magical hitman. He also has a few short stories to his name, including some set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. Priest of Bones is the first book in his new War for the Rose Throne series, which will continue next year with the highly anticipated Priest of Lies.
The story contained within this first book is an amazing fantasy crime narrative which sees the protagonist work to reclaim his criminal holdings from a powerful new gang that has moved into the city while he was gone. This starts out exactly as you would expect from this sort of story as the protagonists attempt to regain territory, one business at a time, while their opponents launch counterattacks and raids of their own. The protagonists come up with some effective plans for taking territory and show what happens when a bunch of soldiers engage in some brutal urban combat. There is a large amount of action throughout this book, which McLean records in bloody and enthralling detail. This action mostly takes the form of small skirmishes and battles, although there are some magical battles which do result in some more gory and spectacular deaths. All of this is incredibly fun, and it works very well with the intriguing side stories and character exploration to create a compelling overall narrative. As the book progresses, an element of political intrigue takes hold as new players enter the game. This represents an interesting but subtle change to the pace of the book and doesn’t result in any loss of action or excitement. In many ways, it appears to be a setup for the next book in the series, which sounds like it’s going to have a much more political focus to it. McLean wraps this all up with a memorable conclusion that I won’t elaborate on, but is the perfect ending for this outstanding and extremely enjoyable piece of fantasy crime.
The central gang that McLean looked at in the plot, the Pious Men, are a strong bunch of characters who serve as a fantastic focal point for this series. All of the Pious Men are former soldiers who have recently survived the war and are still haunted by the horrors they experienced, especially at the devastating siege of Abingon. Quite a few of the characters from this small band of soldiers are explored throughout the book, and while some of these characters only get minor mentions, a number do get expanded roles throughout the book and are shown to have some form of development or are slotted into a role that they make their own. One of the most interesting features of this book is the way that McLean has focused on just how badly the war has messed up these characters, as pretty much all of them are suffering from PTSD in some way or another, referred to by the characters in the book as battle shock. This is handled very well and allows for some fantastic scenes, as characters who initially come across as quite amiable for most of the book go berserk when attacked, while other characters who appear quite strong find themselves crippled by these memories.
The leader of this group of former soldiers turned criminals is Thomas Piety, who serves as the book’s main protagonist and only point-of-view character. Thomas is a good central character to anchor this story, who for the most part comes across as a cold and calculating person who knows how to get what he wants. As Priest of Bones continues, it is slowly revealed that there is a lot more to Thomas’s character than what is originally believed, as he is trying to hide not only the emotional damage from Abingon but the dark memories from his childhood that are still driving him to this day. It is interesting to see Thomas try and reconcile his new role as a priest of Our Lady of Eternal Sorrows with his role as a soldier and crime lord. It is also intriguing to see that one of his deeper motivations is based on his belief that his criminal enterprises not only will make his city a better place but may also save it from a similar fate to Abingon, something he is desperate to never see again. As the story is completely shown through Thomas’s viewpoint, the reader gets the benefit of his cynical attitude as well as his humorous and accurate insights throughout the book. This is a great focal character for this book, and I had fun exploring his full depths.
Quite a lot of time is also spent exploring the other members of the Pious Men that follow Thomas back from the war. The best of these characters is easily Bloody Anne, the hard-as-nails sergeant who is Thomas’s most loyal soldier and friend. There is detailed examination of Anne’s past which reveals a lot about her current character, including her distrust of magic users. This turns into quite a nice side story, as Anne finally starts to overcome her past enough to start exploring a relationship with the prostitute Rosie. Thomas’s brother, Jochan, is also an intriguing character who fits in well with this darker story. Jochan is your standard unhinged killer, who has some of the funniest lines and can be found in the middle of all the big fight scenes. His presence results in a lot of the book’s tension, as he and Thomas clash about everything. McLean has also created a very traumatic backstory for Jochan that not only helps to humanise the character as the reader gets further into the book but also explains a lot about Thomas’s deeper motivation and the guilt he feels whenever he thinks of his brother. Other great characters that the reader should keep an eye out for are the fake knight Sir Eland, the mysterious barmaid Ailsa and Billy the Boy, the Pious Men’s good luck charm who is clearly going to be a very important character throughout the rest of the series.
In Priest of Bones, Peter McLean has delivered a fast-paced and captivating piece of fantasy crime that is filled with a ton of graphic violence, a number of exhilarating fight scenes and some excellent character driven story work. This new book is a wonderful introduction to the new War for the Rose Throne series, and I’m already looking forward to the follow-up book in 2019. Clever, bloody and all sorts of fun, readers will have a blast checking this book out.