Priest of Bones is the new fantasy novel by Peter McLean, author of the Burned Man urban fantasy series. It is a decidedly grim and dark, not-for-the-kiddies-thank-god, story that essentially recounts a turf war in the city of Ellinburg, told by one of its gang leaders, Thomas Piety, an army priest. With its fast-moving plot, intense conflicts, interesting characters, and compelling narrative, Priest of Bones is sure to be among the favourite reads for grimdark fantasy fans this year. I am already looking forward to its follow-up in what will eventually become the War for the Rose Throne series.
Piety, along with 65,000 other inhabitants of Ellinburg, has just returned home from a brutal war to find his home city of Ellinburg a hollow shell of a town with no jobs and no prospects. Worse, his own business ventures—a tavern, a whorehouse, and a casino, among other things—that he’d left in the able hands of his Aunt Enaid, have been taken over by rival gangs and foreign riff raff. Piety reconvenes his gang, the Pious Men, to retake his piece of the city. In doing so, though, he uncovers a secret about who is behind the surge of his rival gang, the Gutcutters, and his little problems start to outsize his own ability to control them.
Adding fuel to this fire is the uncontrollable rage of Thomas’s brother, Lochan, who has every right to assume the position of Thomas’s second, but Thomas already has a second, Bloody Anne, a sergeant from the war, whose loyalty, intelligence, and steady hand he is not willing to give up. This triangle adds intense and constant micro-conflict to the larger conflicts of the story. As if this weren’t bad enough, the Queen’s Men, the real government’s brutal and extremely crafty military-intelligence unit, is onto Piety. He has a history with them, no power to untangle himself from them, and cannot let his band know that he might be forced to work with them on the Queen’s larger conflicts. In other words, Thomas Piety is in a bind, in fact, several binds.
If there’s one thing that puts Priest of Bones above your every day, run-of-mill fantasy novel, it’s the narrative voice of Thomas Piety (which, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, is why PoB is being published by a big house). The story is told by Piety in a charmingly low-key voice, which immediately reminded me of Croaker from Glen Cook’s seminal Black Company series. Without exception, the reader feels like they are being a told a story by the guy who was there. It’s intimate, subtle, and flows like a lazy river. The prose is rhythmic and captivating, and laced with the humble grammatical error of the use of “me” as the co-subject of compound subects — “Bloody Anne and me went to . . .” — that lends a deep authenticity to the voice. Piety is no aristocrat, and that becomes an important distinction later in the story. When I read a multi-POV third-person novel, I always find myself questioning whether I should continue when a new voice takes over. Usually, I was just getting into the previous character. You will not want to stop reading the charismatic and humble Thomas Piety.
Piety is surrounded by an interesting and diverse cast of characters that will also keep you engaged. His brother, Lochan, is constantly drinking, constantly on edge, looking for a fight, perhaps with Thomas himself. The two brothers have a brutal family history that is not for the weak of heart. Piety’s second, Bloody Anne, is a cagey veteran with a hoarse voice and a taste for ale. His “fancy lady” and barmaid, Ailsa, is beautiful flirt who is not what she seems to be. And there are many more characters, each with their own motivations and desires: Fat Luka, Black Billy, Cutter (a fascinatingly deadly member of the Pious Men from Lochan’s side of the bunch – I hope to learn more about him in the next instalment), and Billy the Boy, a twelve-year-old magical phenom who is as nice as he is deadly. The reader gets to know these characters through the voice of Thomas Piety, which gives the reader a sort of intimacy not found in more distant narrative styles.
On the other side of town, called the Wheels because of its many mills, are Ma Aditi, the leader of the Gutcutters; Gregor, her right-hand man, and Bloodhands, a mysterious warrior who has returned with her from the war. Since the novel is told in Piety’s first-person voice, the reader does not get to know these characters as well as the Pious Men, and perhaps more interaction with them could have given more tension to the conflict, but the first-person narrative is so well executed that the sacrifice is well worth it. Yes, there are a lot of characters here, but in case you need help there’s a dramatic personae at the beginning of the book that I found completely unnecessary. In fact I didn’t even remember it was there until I began this review. In general I find dramatic personae unnecessary and a type of spoiler that I nearly always skip over. You can decide for yourself.
The setting for Priest of Bones is limited to the City of Ellinburg, which at times can be a little claustrophobic, but which seems to be a characteristic of low fantasy, as opposed to high fantasy in which a sprawling secondary world is the expectation. Ellinburg is a somewhat typical small medieval-esque city with its gambling houses and whorehouses and tanners and bakers and the rest. Outside the seedy part of the city is a suburb where aristocrats seem to live safely away from the gang life of the city. Like the characters in a first-person account, the city is only seen through the eyes of Thomas Piety, and it is his hometown, so there is no intricate, lengthy, detailed description of it. The reader gets to know it as Piety needs to move around to take care of business. A picture of a raucous, somewhat lawless and corrupt, middle-sized city does come together, and by the end of the novel, the reader knows pretty much where everything is as if they’d been there. There’s reason to believe the setting will expand in the sequels, and I hope it will. It would be great to hear Piety’s take on a place he is unfamiliar with.
Thematically, Priest of Bones covers a lot of familiar territory: loyalty (not just in the gangs but also Piety’s loyalty to the people of Ellinburg), revenge, love, class, and also some darker stuff that might seem gratuitous were the story told in a more distant third-person style. Piety, though, is as seemingly trustworthy a first-person narrator as you’ll find in fantasy, but he doesn’t claim to know everything about the world – not even close, which makes for a lot of tension as his fate becomes clear. He begins to learn how the world works, and he shares that with the reader as he does, which makes for great reading.
If there are any drawbacks to Priest of Bones, they are that it doesn’t seem to matter a whole lot, except on rare occasions, that Piety is a priest. Based on the title, I expected his priesthood to be integral to the story, but it’s not, or at least it doesn’t seem to be, except in that it enhances the loyalty of his followers, perhaps. The other nagging thing, which many readers won’t care about but which I am beginning to see in a lot of grimdark fiction both in novels and in Grimdark Magazine, is that the SFF element, in this case the magic, is not integral to the plot. Billy the Boy is a fascinating and somewhat frightening character, but his magic is just another weapon in an otherwise unmagical story. It seems to me that the expectation in SFF used to be that the science or magic was the MacGuffin around which the plot revolved. This (sadly, in the opinion of this reviewer) no longer seems to be the case in much grimdark fiction.
Nevertheless, Priest of Bones is a great read. You can decide for yourself if Piety is too good to be a true grimdark hero. He certainly does some nasty stuff. But that’s neither here nor there. Fans of the Black Company, Abercrombie, Mark Lawrence, and the like will surely eat up Priest of Bones. Highly recommended.