Priest of Bones by Peter McLean

Priest of Bones by Peter McLean

priest of bones peter mclean fantasy book reviewThere aren’t actually any pistols in this book, though there are cannons and grenades.

 

Unlike with my previous reviews, this ain’t the author’s first rodeo, so no need to pull punches, though there aren’t many. Peter McLean has a brilliant ability to make the reader feel something for the characters, love or hate them. And I kinda hate Tomas Piety.

Priest of Bones is a first-person low fantasy set in a world of vaguely Renaissance-level technology, opening at the end of a brutal war with a company of soldiers making their way home and looting their own country all the way. Tomas Piety was an organized crime boss before the war and aims to be again, using his soldiers to reform the gang and retake his old territory. But he soon finds himself unwillingly mixed up in grander plots involving not just rival gangs but deadly spies, sorcerers and political intrigue that he’d never had any interest in.

Like all gangsters, Tomas Piety is a complete hypocrite. He pretends he’s better than others and a ‘legitimate businessman,’ right up until the blood starts flowing. It’s basically a graft of Peaky Blinders into a fantasy setting. I’m not complaining, it’s clearly successful, but the characters are so similar I found myself visualizing Cillian Murphy more often than I’d admit. There are a few tedious nods to conventional sexual morality, but I guess that’s what you need to appeal to a mass audience. Instances of white-knighting abound, but most people probably won’t have a problem with it. On the other hand, this gangster has no problem with massive numbers of innocent people dying just as long as he doesn’t know them. This seems to be true of mafiosi whether they’re named Corleone or Soprano or Shelby or Piety. As the Pious Men gang reclaim their old businesses from rivals, I wondered how many ordinary customers of those businesses they slaughtered in the process. The authors of those earlier works knew their characters’ rationalizations were bullshit, and it remains to be seen whether McLean does, which is why I’ll probably read the next volumes in his saga.

One thing I really appreciated about this book was that it’s clearly low fantasy. Magic doesn’t appear at all until almost a third of the way through the book, and then only slightly but increasingly. I like this type of world where magic is more of a dangerous nuisance than anything else, since it lends the world more realism. McLean’s worldbuilding is superb, and I can almost really smell the stink of a district called literally The Stink. I have no idea if McLean grew up in a setting like this, but just the fact that I wonder it says a lot about the authenticity.

I also liked the exquisite plot construction. Peter says that he’s a boring plotter rather than a pantser, but it really pays off here. This book is a master class in pacing, and the action (meaning things happening that advance the plot) never lets up. In many ways it resembles the stepwise progression you see in video games with a building plotline. Tomas starts off small reclaiming his gang’s home base, then slowly builds up his territory with bigger and bigger targets. Some might find this method familiar and tropey, but it gives a sense of building momentum and purpose, bigger and bigger until the final boss fight, as it were. It works for this type of story.

One technical criticism I have is that there are several instances of phrases being repeated multiple times, almost word for word, both in dialogue and exposition. I don’t know if this is intentional or if he just forgot he already used that line but in some places it’s just telling me something I clearly already know. Not sure if this is an editing issue but it was a bit annoying.

As I said, I don’t like Tomas Piety, but I will continue to read his story if only to see if he gets his comeuppance. Of course he won’t cause that’s not how grimdark works, but whatever. For all that I still root for him to win, and Peter McLean’s ability to make me interested in characters I hate is the mark of a masterful storyteller, and I look forward to the next volume in his series, Priest of Lies. I tore through most of this book in a day, and that’s just about the best compliment I can give.

 

Peter McLean’s website: Talonwraith.com

 

Pairs well with: Farmhaus Trocken Dry Cider

 

There’s a lot of brandy in this book so it was tempting to review a brandy with it, but to be honest I don’t like brandy much. Burns my throat. So here’s a cider.

It’s not always easy to find dry cider in the US (yeah, I know. Shut up.) but it’s getting easier. Even then it’s frequently over-carbonated and sucker punches the throat going down. Farmhaus Trocken is a Michigan-based cider that avoids this, with a smooth, crisp taste. The 6.9% ABV won’t thrash you, but try to pace yourself. The complete fermentation leaves just a hint of apple flavor but plenty of tartness, so some folks will like this but others won’t. I enjoyed this precisely because of the lack of work I had to do to enjoy it. Not terribly complex but a solid apfelwein-style cider that won’t send you into a sugar coma (since there is none) yet won’t sear your tongue with acidity either. There are fine lines the protagonist in the book straddles too, so what better to pair with Priest of Bones than a bone-dry cider?

 

 

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