Book Review: Priest of Bones by Peter McLean
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Series: Book 1 of War for the Rose Throne
Publisher: Ace Books (October 2, 2018)
Length: 352 pages
Hmm, my thoughts are complicated for this one. Priest of Bones by Peter McLean is garnering all kinds of praise and I’m happy it’s getting the attention it deserves, but I’m just not feeling as enthusiastic about it as I ought to be. It’s as if on some level, I know I should like this—everything about the story screams “me” and the premise sounds exactly like the kind of dark fantasy designed to push all my right buttons. And yet, I felt a bizarre sense of distance when reading this, like how when an overzealous salesperson comes on too strongly with their pitch and actually winds up turning you off from a product you had wanted to buy.
In this novel, which feels a lot like grimdark sword and sorcery meets The Godfather, we follow mob boss and army priest Tomas Piety as he returns home to Ellinburg after fighting in a brutal war, only to find his criminal empire in shambles. Someone else had moved in during his absence, using the confusion of the war to take over all his properties and rackets. Keeping his trusted lieutenant Bloody Anne at his side and his volatile brother Jochan at arm’s length, Tomas sets out to gather up his gang of Pious Men in preparation to reclaim what he had worked so hard to build.
But in doing so, Tomas unwittingly uncovers the secret of who has been bankrolling his rivals, turning his once beloved city into a hollow shell run by foreign powers. Though he is loathe to do it, Tomas agrees to work clandestinely with the Queen’s Men, a group of agents for the crown, if it means saving the kingdom from invaders.
Credit where credit’s due: Priest of Bones is action-packed and fast-paced, wasting no time in getting right into the thick of things. From my experience reading the Burned Man trilogy, I already know McLean doesn’t mess around. His prose is sharp as a blade, his dialogue acerbic and punchy. There is hardly any preamble as we are thrown headfirst into the raging turf war, with the violence escalating from fist fights to fire bombs in no time flat.
There’s a dark tone to this one, no question about that. But here’s where its entire concept also started to unravel for me. Yes, a lot of unsavory things happen in this story, including but not limited to murder, sexual assault, violence and cruelty towards men, women, children, animals, you name it. As an avid reader of grimdark, none of this is anything I haven’t seen before, and yet, something about it in this case felt…off. While I wouldn’t stay the amount of violence is gratuitous exactly, I would say it feels a bit perfunctory and done for its own sake. There’s a real sense of going through the motions when it comes to a lot of these sequences, and character actions also feel scripted like they’re only doing and saying the things they do because it’s what the reader would expect.
It was difficult connecting with Tomas, as a result. There was a lot of telling and not showing when it came to his motivations, which made him come across as disingenuous. Simply repeating something over and over does not make it any more believable, for example, as when Tomas kept insisting that he respects women because he made Bloody Anne his second and pays her more than his other men. His persona felt artificial, like the very heart and soul of his character was missing. It also didn’t help that he was such a practical man. Tomas is someone who does what needs to be done, tackling problems with an almost detached and calculating approach. There’s a marriage-of-convenience plot in this story which perfectly illustrated this, where the protagonist might have felt something more for his expedient bride, yet at no point did I actually feel convinced. While I could definitely see what the author was trying to go for with Tomas’ character, I just couldn’t get on board with it.
Nevertheless, I certainly don’t want to discourage anyone from reading this book, especially if it sounds like something you’ll enjoy. And to be quite honest, while I did not love Priest of Bones, I could still appreciate it for what it was: a fast-moving dark fantasy novel of moral ambiguity and intrigue that scores high on the readability and cool factor meters—and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Of course, it would have been nice if it had gone above and beyond those factors, but at the end of the day, this might just be another case of my misplaced hopes and hype.