Book Review - PRIEST OF BONES by Peter McLean

(Title: Priest of Bones / Author: Peter McLean / Publisher: Ace Books / Publication Date: October 2, 2018)

Army priest Tomas Piety has come home after three years of fighting in a war that he didn't sign up for.  Before being shipped off to the bloody battlefield, Tomas was a very important man in the city of Ellinburg. Some might say he was the only man that really mattered.  He is the de facto leader of a powerful crime syndicate that once controlled every aspect of Ellinburg society.  Nothing happened in Ellinburg that didn't first go through The Pious Men and their boss Tomas Piety.  One thing becomes increasingly obvious to Tomas upon his return to his home city, and that is things have changed dramatically in Ellinburg during the time that he's been away.  

The first thing that he realizes is that all of the businesses that he and his Pious Men once controlled have been taken over by another faction, seizing upon the vacuum that The Pious Men left behind.  This is understandably enraging to Tomas since he's been off fighting and bleeding in a war for his Queen, only to be undercut and have his business operation taken over by a shadowy group who have their own specific motivations.  These motivations are murky at best, but could soon be revealed now that a confrontation is almost inevitable between the two groups.  

The Pious Men are left with only two real options: leave things as they are and simply blend back into society as returning war heroes or engage in an all-out power struggle to take back what was unjustly (in their minds) stolen from them.  Let's just say that Tomas Piety isn't the type of man to take something like this lying down and he simply cannot allow this to stand, if only to save face with his people.  Tomas, along with his emotionally unstable brother Jochan and his second in command Bloody Anne must begin hatching a plan to begin to take back each tavern, gaming house, and brothel that they once controlled.  

Complicating matters even further is the governor of Ellinburg, who doesn't particularly relish what he knows is coming. And what is surely coming is a bloody power play that could potentially cripple the city, leaving corpses strewn across his streets.  Tomas knows that he must walk a fine line so as not to run himself and his crew afoul of the law, while still somehow avenging the audacious infiltration that has taken place in his absence.  In the end one true fact emerges, the war that Tomas once fought on foreign soil for three long years never ended even after their victory.  Rather, it has just continued in another form on his home turf of Ellinburg.  Can Tomas summon the leadership skills that he acquired during that bloody conflict to rally the Pious Men in an overthrow of the outlanders or are they ultimately just too strong and organized to be beaten?  And even more problematic to consider, could these interlopers have friends in very high places that don't want them to be taken out?

I knew that I was going to be in for quite a ride with this book when Peter McLean immediately kills off one of the characters in gruesome fashion within the first few paragraphs.  I thought, "okay, time to buckle in!"  In PRIEST OF BONES, we are introduced to this strikingly powerful main character named Tomas Piety.  The first thing that I was struck by was how Tomas is portrayed as an unforgiving and sometimes brutal leader of men, yet he has recently taken the cloth of priesthood and in so doing becomes a follower of "Our Lady of Eternal Sorrows". When he is reunited with his brother Jochan after the war, Jochan actually laughs openly at the idea that Tomas is now a priest.  

I knew at this point in the story that Tomas was going to be one heck of a complex character and very far from one-dimensional.  With every decision that he makes and with every thought in his head, it is obvious that he is now somewhat influenced by his newly found religion.  The first-person narrative is so effective and really gives you a great sense of how he sees things on a personal level.  At the same time, Tomas has lost none of his overbearing personality and brutality when it comes to his territoriality issues and claims to what he believes are rightfully his. He's a guy who doesn't take very kindly to being challenged. Tomas also has the inane ability to lead and enjoys the unwavering support of his crew through a delicate balance of harsh discipline and also praise, as he shows when he divvies out money from his private stash after The Pious Men conduct a successful raid to take back some of their lost territory.  

The secondary characters are so incredibly well fleshed-out and are vital to the story as with Tomas' second in command Bloody Anne.  Anne has lived a very tortured life and we get a definite taste of that in a couple of scenes where she bears her soul.  We also get treated to the disturbing reason why she has been given the unusual moniker "Bloody" Anne.  Then there's Jochan, who tends to be a thorn in Tomas' side as he can be quite unstable most of the time.  This only gets compounded when his jealousy that Bloody Anne is chosen as Second to Tomas instead of his own brother comes to a head.  This little personal battle between brothers serves as a very nice conflict within the overarching conflict in the book, and is something that you have a creeping feeling will be somewhat problematic for Thomas down the road.  

From the start, I was drawn into the drama between The Pious Men and the invaders who had taken over their former territory.  Just as an aside, I think the whole "Godfather" angle is a bit overplayed in some of the descriptions of this book, as this is still a very Fantasy-rooted story and I never once got the feeling that I was reading about Michael Corleone.  It's definitely more Scott Lynch than it is Mario Puzo in my opinion.  The confrontations between the two battling factions are so stunningly vivid in their descriptions, some not even involving physical violence but rather subterfuge and political maneuvering.  

PRIEST OF BONES gave me many moments of jaw-dropping surprise, there are twists and turns aplenty in these 350 pages.  What I originally thought was going to be a Grimdark battle royal became in reality a multi-textured, mystery-infused, character-driven novel that shows you the best and worst that human nature can exhibit under extreme duress.  I finished my review of  Ravencry right before starting PRIEST OF BONES and I was kind of dubious as to whether or not another book could match its intensity and prose, let alone so soon after the fact.  I'm so happy to be able to state that Peter McLean has given us one hell of a story to savor that is absolutely at the lofty level of my previous read.  Merely classifying this wonderful book as Grimdark, or Grindark, or Low-Fantasy does it a disservice in my opinion.  

PRIEST OF BONES defies classification in that it is a phenomenal story with sensational characters and should be read by everyone who enjoys bloody great books.  If I didn't have such a huge backlog of upcoming reviews that I needed to finish, I would go back to page one and read it all over again to see if I could pick out anything new.  Incidentally, for those wishing to pick up a copy of PRIEST OF BONES, the official U.S. publication date is October 2nd.  Now that we are on the doorstep of September, it shouldn't feel like too much of a wait until release day.  Grab this one as soon as it is officially available and add it to the top of your reading list, you won't regret it.  

(My Rating: 10/10)


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