Priest of Bones by Peter McLean

October 4, 2018

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’ old life it becomes clear; the war is not over.

It is only just beginning.

What with the main character of this book being a priest, I figure I should probably begin with a confession. I’ve been binge watching the first three seasons on Peaky Blinders while on holiday. Along with that, I’ve also been reading Priest of Bones by Peter McLean. It turns out, the tv show and book are ideal partners. Put it this way, there is an extremely good chance that Nick Cave is going to make an appearance in this review at some point or another.

Being a soldier in a war is going to leave a mark on anyone. Tomas Piety has returned home a changed man. He has had his fill of blood and violence. The only problem is the city where he lives is corrupt to the core. Ellinburgh, Old Reekie to the locals, is run by gangs and before he left for the war, Tomas was one of the biggest bosses. His gang, the Pious Men, controlled an area called The Stink with ruthless efficiency. Now, Tomas and his men are back, and much as he might wish to walk away from it, his old life is calling. Tomas is going to take back what once was his and if he needs to kill to do that, then so be it. Tomas Piety is a character of contrasts. On one hand you have the world-weary soldier, looking for nothing but a quiet life. On the other hand, he is also Tomas Piety, leader of the Pious Men, driven by the morally ambiguous code of the criminal classes. There is a constant battle going on within the man. How can he ever hope to be all things to all people? This inner turmoil makes for a fascinating protagonist.

Piety’s second in command is the aptly named Bloody Anne. As seasoned a soldier as her commander, she is tough as nails and more than a match for anyone. Once again, the author does a great job creating a multi layered character whose depths you only discover the further you read. There is no doubt that Anne is a loyal and tenacious warrior, but in her own way, she is just as damaged as everyone else.

The final standout character is Tomas’ brother, Jochan. In less skilled hands, Jochan could have easily become a caricature of a war veteran turned gang member. Instead, his character is also fully realised. He is far more than just a simple soldier. There is a history that has shaped Jochan’s attitudes. Those of you who are fans of Peaky Blinders may spot passing similarities between this book and the tv show, and I think it is fair to say that the Piety family and the Shelbys are cut from the same cloth. Jochan Piety and Arthur Shelby are certainly two peas from the same pod. I can see them sharing a beer or twelve in The Tanners Arms or The Garrison and getting on like a house on fire… or possibly trying to kill one another. The jury is still out to be honest. Neither man would admit to it, but both have been hopelessly traumatised by war. They are driven by pure rage and animal instinct. Violence and alcohol are the only fuel that allows either man to function. Where Priest of Bones excels over its televisual cousin is that we get far more insight with McLean’s characters. Their motivations and reactions are easier to appreciate due to the novel’s taut narrative. I guess that’s one area where books will always have the edge over tv.

The rest of the Pious Men are just as low born as their leaders, even if some might try to pretend otherwise. They come from the dirt and they all know they are likely destined to end up back there. Piety and co are proud of where they come from.  You also pick up on that brotherhood and sense of easy camaraderie that only exists between people who have suffered and survived together.

I’ve always been a fan of the idea that a city has multiple faces. The thin veneer of civility and society is what we see in the daytime, but at night when there are dark deeds to be done the city shows us its other face. The Pious men exist in a world of rough gambling dens, rough pubs and even rougher brothels. In a certain light there is a delightfully grimy feeling to Ellinburgh, a brutal unashamed honesty to the streets. Excuse me as I get all misty eyed, reminds me of my hometown on a Saturday night.

I’ll admit to already being a big fan of Peter McLean’s previous novels. I’m reviewed them all on this very website. They are great, urban fantasy-flavoured fun but Priest of Bones feels like next level stuff. This novel marks a writer coming of age. I loved it all, it’s damned near perfect. McLean deftly explores the nature of war, loyalty, revenge and redemption, whilst crafting a truly engaging tale. Action, introspection, wicked sharp blades and copious amounts of cheap brandy are the order of the day. It turns out down and dirty crime novels with a razor-sharp fantastical edge are my new favourite thing.

I don’t imagine my musical recommendation will come as much of a surprise this week. Those fine people over at the BBC have crafted a Spotify playlist of all the tracks that feature in that there Peaky Blinders tv show. I reckon it could easily act as a soundtrack to Priest of Bones if you are musically inclined. If you have access to Spotify, said list is available via the link below.

As I enjoyed this book so much I’ve decided that this week you get a bonus video track to enjoy. The lyrics really can’t get more apt if they tried. If this isn’t Tomas Piety’s theme, I don’t know what is.

See, I told you Nick Cave would show up somewhere.

Priest of Bones, the first book in The War for the Rose Throne, is published by Jo Fletcher Books and is available now. Priest of Lies is set to follow. I’ll be reading it as soon as I can get my grubby little mitts on a copy of it. Highly recommended.

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