Book review: Priest of Bones by Peter McLean

Priest of Bones - Peter McLean
****

The world of Peter McLean's Priest of Bones is a harsh and brutal one and there aren't too many good people to be found there. Thomas Piety might be a priest but that doesn't mean much here, and the first few pages alone quickly make it apparent that he can be as ruthless and quick to use his swords as any man. And he's going to need to be. Piety, his brother Jochen and his small band of soldiers have just returned from the wars and he has business affairs to take control of again back home in Ellingburg. And it's not God's business.

Not to put too fine a point on it, the family's business involves running whorehouses, taverns and a protection racket for the small businesses in the district of Ellingburg known as the Stink. The 'Pious Men' are gangsters. Much has changed since they went off to fight in the war, changed in relation to the horrors they witnessed during the war, but also in Ellingburgh where the families 'interests' now lies in the hands of others. That's not a good combination of circumstances and things are about to get very bloody indeed.

The battle-hardened and in some cases battle-shocked men are more than capable of wresting control back, little by little, as long as they don't get too ambitious too quickly. What is worrying however is that they soon realise that more has changed than they thought and that they're not just up against any ordinary rival gang. There are foreign interests at play from Skania, with agents from Dannsburg and spies working for the Queen's Men involved, and there's more at stake here that regaining ownership of a few taverns and whorehouses.

The Pious Men however have a few capable warriors in their number, including the formidable Bloody Anne, although some, including Thomas's brother Jochen who is a bit of a loose cannon, can be unpredictable. Thomas needs to play this carefully not to get swallowed up in wider political affairs and he might have one as yet unknown quantity in the shape of Billy the Boy. Whether he is indeed touched by god or a witch no one is sure just yet, but there's magic ability there that could be useful in gaining a necessary advantage.

And, to be honest that's about the height of Priest of Bones in outline. It's a fantasy novel with some real-world correlation, with the Skanians and Dannsburg agents having a distinctly Scandinavian character, although in this world there's no castle in this grim version of 'Ellingburg'. Piety's credentials as a priest or even the idea of him being a priest isn't particularly well developed however, as there's not much information about religious orders here. Thomas Piety is not a good man as we might know it, but he works within the nature of the world he lives in and ensures that his men and the women he keeps are looked after well. He has to show strength and be brutal, as he will not survive here if he shows any kind of weakness.

Priest of Bones does get very blunt in language and behaviour and brutal in the violence that ensues between rival gangs in Ellingburg, but there's enough intrigue going on in the background to give the novel a bit more interest and even make the prospect of follow-up books something to look forward to.. There's plenty of variety and colour in the characters, there's considerable intrigue between Thomas and various agencies in how he starts to regain his empire, with much more surely to come in the wider political conspiracies that are developing. And then there's the element of magic which is a largely unknown quantity, but what we've seen of it so far suggests that there are darker and more violent roads yet to go down in Peter McLean's War for the Rose Crown series.



Priest of Bones (War for the Rose Throne) by Peter McLean is published by Jo Fletcher Books on 4th October 2018

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