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Thursday, October 4, 2018

Priest Of Bones by Peter McLean (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Order Priest Of Bones over HERE (USA) & HERE (UK)
Read "Grimdark or Grimheart" by Peter McLean (guest post)

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Peter McLean was born near London in 1972, the son of a bank manager and an English teacher. He went to school in the shadow of Norwich Cathedral where he spent most of his time making up stories.

By the time he left school this was probably the thing he was best at, alongside the Taoist kung fu he had been studying since the age of 13. He grew up in the Norwich alternative scene, alternating dingy nightclubs with martial arts and practical magic.

He has since grown up a bit, if not a lot, and spent 25 years working in corporate IT. He is married to Diane and is still making up stories.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: The war is over, and army priest Tomas Piety heads home with Sergeant Bloody Anne at his side. But things have changed while he was away: his crime empire has been stolen and the people of Ellinburg--his people--have run out of food and hope and places to hide. Tomas sets out to reclaim what was his with help from Anne, his brother, Jochan, and his new gang: the Pious Men. But when he finds himself dragged into a web of political intrigue once again, everything gets more complicated.

As the Pious Men fight shadowy foreign infiltrators in the back-street taverns, brothels, and gambling dens of Tomas's old life, it becomes clear:

The war is only just beginning.

FORMAT/INFO: Priest Of Bones is 352 pages long and is divided into fifty titled chapters spread over two sections. There’s also a map, dramatis personae section as well as an acknowledgements section. Narration is in first person solely via Tomas Piety. This is the first book in the War Of The Rose Throne series.

October 2 2018 marked the American e-book and trade paperback publication of Priest Of Bones and it was published by Ace Roc Books. The book is also released in hardback and e-book format in the UK on October 4 2018 by Jo Fletcher books.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Priest Of Bones is Peter McLean’s fantasy debut and one that will certainly mark his name in the annals of grimdark fantasy. Priest Of Bones is a book that focuses on Tomas Piety and his soldiers who wish to return to their home town of Ellingburg from a war that even though their nation has won, it was a pyrrhic victory through and through. The story begins with Tomas and his men who find themselves homesick and home bound as Tomas' younger brother Jochan Piety and his band of men happen upon them as well. Tomas has a lot of special folks in his unit like his sergeant Bloody Anne, Sir Eland, Cookpot, Billy the boy etc. His crew is one of soldiers whose mettle has been tested and they have proven themselves multiple times over.

Before the war, Tomas had multiple business holdings which he plans to takeover and enjoy the good life. Things however turn out a bit differently as he finds a big surprise for him in his hometown. He will have to return to his days of being a wise guy gangster before he learnt to be a soldier and a priest. Things then take a darker turn as we find out about the true workings of the city of Ellingburg as well as the past of the Piety family.

Peter McLean has previously written a horror urban fantasy and it was starkly different than what was then being published in the urban fantasy genre. He does something different with this opening salvo as well. Priest Of Bones is the first volume of the War Of The Rose Throne and it is a bloody, dark, vicious, slim volume of a book. There are many things to like about it, for me the prime highlight was the characterization as even though the story is  solely presented from the first person perspective of Tomas Piety. All the characters presented are vividly described and will stand out in the reader's mind starkly. Be it Bloody Anne or Tomas’ aunt Enaid or dangerous bĂȘte noire Ma Aditi or even bit characters like Billy the boy who I believe deserves a bigger role in the upcoming sequel as do the aforementioned characters.

Peter absolutely nails each and every character down as they struggle with their morals as well as visceral needs. In a world wherein survival is often dependent on wits, wiles and weapons. Truth, decency and morality often are shorn in favor of survival instinct. It’s  a stark representation of Darwin’s law in a secondary fantasy world and the author showcases it brilliantly. Characters will die as newer ones are introduced and none are more fascinating than Tomas Piety, ruthless gang boss, brilliant commander and a consecrated priest of the Lady Of Eternal Sorrows. Tomas truly shines as he slowly unfolds himself from his militaristic roles and slips back into his previous occupation as the leader of the Pious Men. There’s much more to Tomas as the reader learns and they learn quite a bit as to why he’s so different than his younger hotheaded, fierce warrior of a brother Jochan. Why Billy the boy listens to his orders and yet also serves as his confessional priest (the only one tending to Tomas). Why Bloody Anne being the ruthless warrior she is, still looks on to  his commands and why Ma Aditi, most dreaded gangster and feared by the constabulary, royals as well as the common populace counts him and him only as her foe.

Tomas is a leader and an alpha for sure but he’s not brilliant yet foolhardy like Locke Lamora, neither is he a deadly but cursed warrior like Logen “The Bloody Nine”. He’s the fantasy equivalent of Michael Corleone, a ruthless and brilliant man who can shed his morals upon the circumstantial dictates and do the unthinkable to make sure of his victory. This book heavily reminds one of the Cosa Nostra methods and measures espoused within The Godfather series of books and I believe it might not be an accident. Some reviewers have compared it to the TV show Peaky Blinders but since I haven’t watched it at all, I can’t comment on it.

The world showcased within is a shaky one wherein gangs are often double-crossing each other and the nobility likes to play within these shadows as well. I enjoyed this aspect of the book and for those who like a bit of political machinations within their stories, will certainly enjoy this story. Amidst all of this savagery, the author veritably showcases the humanity of the people within. This is a hard task but it’s done adroitly by Peter McLean as he shows us how scary monsters like Jochan came to be. Plus in that moment, you feel the savage brutality of the world as well as the keen sense of sympathy for folks whom you would have never guessed. It’s not just with one character but many others and I enjoyed this aspect whilst having to steel my mind against the very horrendous crimes committed (trigger warning for paedophilia).

This book while high on crime and intrigue doesn’t disappoint with the action sequences. There’s enough action both of a personal and large scale nature to keep fantasy readers engrossed as well a very vivid climatic homage to The Godfather. I loved reading it and would be overjoyed to see it translated on the big screen. Lastly there’s some crucial hints dropped about the nature of the conflict as well as the upheavals in the city of Ellingburg. I enjoyed how the author makes this book a strong mix of low fantasy as well as a crime thriller but yet at the same time, there are bigger machinations on the horizon (both magical and illicit). This is just the opening salvo and yet it left me desperately wanting more.

There were just a few minor niggles for me, primarily the character of Billy the boy is given a small role but his actions are vastly important and so I had hoped for more of an explanation about him and his past. While none is found in this volume, I hope the author changes it in the sequels. Secondly the worldbuilding is on the leaner side and I really was hoping to know more about the nation, the previous war, the history, etc. Lastly the plot ends on a small cliffhanger and for those who don’t like them, be on the watchout as you will experience one which might leave you thoroughly teased for the sequel "Priest Of Lies".

CONCLUSION: Priest Of Bones is a magnificent crime thriller that’s set in a secondary fantasy world. Most crime readers would be forgiven if they momentarily forgot that this isn’t set on Earth but some other world. Peter McLean proves himself to a very adapt writer and joins the pantheon of brilliant British minds such as J. Abercrombie, M. Billingham, M. Lawrence, D. Mina, etc. Priest Of Bones is that rare title that straddles two different genres and showcases the brilliance of both.



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