Review: Priest of Bones by Peter Mclean

‘That tone meant the devil was awake and there was harsh justice coming for sure.’

***Content warnings for war, death, gore, murder, rape (off and on page), PTSD, child abuse, homophobia, genital mutilation, sexual abuse, substance and alcohol abuse, plague, death of a parent and torture***

Something that’s becoming more and more obivous about my taste is that I will always root for a morally grey, messy character. I don’t know what it says about me, but it makes picking up books a hell of a lot easier. Now don’t get me wrong, not all bad-ish people are my alley. Like I would die for the No Peak Clan but I’ve never been able to read Prince of Thorns. However, you give me layers to them, excellently plotting with characters who walk off the page, in a fictional world I almost remember, you got my attention.

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.

This a bloody, brutal tale of one man’s journey home from war, one he’s supposed to have one, and his intention of bringing his own back with him. His own, including his brother, Jochan, and sergeant/friend, Bloody Anne. The reason I mention those two outside of Tomas isn’t for lack of other side charactes, it’s just I have to narrow it down to my favourites or we will be here all day. We are following Tomas Piety, a man fresh and bloody from war on his way home. See before the war, Tomas was a bit of a lord in his own city Ellinburg. He ran businesses, was paid a tax from the residents and in return the streets were safe and work and food for all. Where he falls on the gangster/philanthropic leader of the people is purely subjective. He arrives, having united with his brother, brought his sergeant and any men who wished to join with every intention of running the same streets again. Because these are Pious Men’s streets.

Something I was super impressed with this book was how seamlessly the world is built around the characters for you. For this novel, the locations are mostly limited to Ellinburg itself, with the bloody memory of Abingon in the background. But there’s no doubt this is a story about Tomas, his people and their lives. But you can feel and smell the city in the background. The Tanners Arms, the tavern Tomas uses as his HQ, you can smell the bear and the old wood. When visiting a man of the ‘cunning’, a form of magic that manifests in people, Tomas travels through the Wheels. A part of the city dedicated to trade, factories and run by another gang. You can smell the stink coming up from the bridges, feel the paranoia of one of the Gut Cutters possibly deciding you were worth the gang warfare. I walked every inch of the city and it feels like a place from another time. I think my emmersive experience was added to by listening to this on audio, narrated flawlessly by David Morley Hale (seriously hard to believe this is just one guy, even doing women like Anne and Elsa flawlessly) so highly recommend that way.

Let’s talk the main man himself, Tomas Piety. A complex man, layers to his motivations with his own trauma. I loved Tomas. He’s up there now with Hilo as my favourite ‘yeah I know he’s killed people, but they messed with him!’ guy. But all that aside, I admire the level of complexity tied to him. What essentially seems to drive Tomas is his loyalties. He is a very measured and calculated guy and even though he has secrets for the sake of his loved ones and reputation, you also kinda know he’s hiding something from the reader. He’s a clever man Tomas. I also want to shout out the humor. Tomas as a result of war needs, became a priest of Our Lady. A lot of his dearest and nearest back home are understandably like, what? So the fact everytime someone saw him in robes like a running joke remarked it along the lines of’You?! A fuckin priest?! Naawwwww.’ was some welcome relief.

This is a very character driven story, and it takes it’s turns to get to the others. Bloody Anne is a vicious, powerful woman who demmands leadership and respect. Marked for the rest of her life by a deep scar across her face, Anne serves as Tomas’s second. I cried when we eventually did get her backstory and actually had to stop reading that night so do buckle up again on the mentioned content warnings. Anne is also a lesbian so she serves as a gateway point to the story for us queer folk who want to see ourselves as all sorts of characters. Yochan, Tomas’s younger brother, really annoyed me to begin but reader, hold out your heart. He will break it. Tomas, marked not only by the same war as Tomas, is forever running from the trauma of their abusive childhood. Yochan and Tomas were interesting as well for that exploration of trauma for me, much like Anne since they both have very different ways of dealing with it (Anne included too). And there wasn’t any moment anyone said they were doing it wrong? For being through some shit but also handling it their way?

To comment on one more aspect of this story to try and keep this resembling a review and not an absolute outpour of my love for it, the political machinations. It is incredible. I never did review it on the blog but to this day, Kushiel’s Dart is my favourite book for writing of politics and intrigue. Priest of Bones is right up there with it. Tomas is a careful man, playing a lot of hands but none are more kept to his chest than his knowledge of the Queens Men. Acting as a sort of spy network that I pictured as Smiley’s Circus meets the gritty nature of Peaky Blinders but just as brutal as the two. These are the people Tomas is aware of, and that’s all I’ll really say about them but the level of 3D chess being played just by walking into his own bar to meet someone? Next level. Go read it to see what I mean.

I’ve been binging the Wayfarers by Becky Chambers so had to remind myself that binging another series aside it was likely asking for chaos but February is right around the corner and I plan to jump straight into the sequel, Priest of Crowns. Peter McLean is playing some kind of long game here and I am all for it but lord am I scared. This is the best thing I have read that isn’t a reread in a good while and I can’t wait to get stuck in again.

Final mentions, there is a man killed for trying to rape a girl by his own company, there is a swear that is ‘fuck a nun’ and a boy called Billy who is magical in a way that scares me. You’ll see what I mean. Thanks for checking in guys, staying patiently and happy reading!


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