Book review: Priest of Lies by Peter McLean
The second book in Peter McLean's grimdark fantasy War for the Rose Throne series continues on much as expected from Priest of Bones. In the first book, it was very much a case of Tomas Piety and his warriors, the 'Pious Men' returning from the wars to reconsolidate their power base in the city of Ellinburg that had been lost in his absence. He's had to make certain sacrifices and commit some heinous murders to do that, but Peter McLean's Ellinburg is a brutal world and you're not exactly going to appealing to the authorities to regain control over the drug and prostitution establishments in the city.
One of those necessary sacrifices to be made has been his marriage of convenience to Ailsa, a resourceful secret agent, a spy for the crown, a 'Queen's Man', with influential connections in Dannsburg. He has consequently had to be less involved in hands-on activities, since he is trying to give the appearance at least of a respectable businessman as well as a priest, although there is very little that is holy about Piety, and even the idea a thug like Piety having any kind of priestly duties beyond confessions (and there's a lot of people with plenty to confess) seems absurd. Piety's idea of tending his flock and extending his 'congregation' involves considerable amounts of bloody violence and Ailsa for one, wants him to extend that influence further.
It was starting to become apparent by the end of Book One that that this is about more than just a bunch of low-life gangs competing to carve up their area of the city. Ellinburg is becoming the centre of operations for foreign powers, the war in the city against the Northern Sons, a formidable group of warriors led by a dangerous thug called Bloodhands, in reality something of a proxy war against the Skanians. So soon after the last one, no-one has the appetite for a war and they can''t afford to let the hostilities break out a larger conflict. What was also apparent is that both sides are becoming more aware of magical powers can play if they can control those individuals with the gift of cunning.
For the first third of Priest of Lies, basically it's very much a continuation of Tomas Piety's mopping up operation, still consolidating his base in 'the Stink', still fighting battles to win more gangs over to the Pious men, relying on Billy the Boy's increasing facility with the magical powers to build a greater force. He's going to need it for the bigger picture that is developing - but developing slowly - in the struggle against the Skanians. It covers a lot of ground and similar ground to the first book and feels unpleasant and unnecessary. There's a change of scenery however in the second part of the book, Tomas and Ailsa visiting court in Dannsburg, where the ground rules are different, the workings and objectives of the Queen's Men a mystery, which means that Tomas is less sure of his ground and where the danger lies and he doesn't like that one bit.
The actions of Piety and his men are crude and violent, and the language, writing and plotting consequently also gives the appearance of being rather crude. The behaviour might be of a more supposedly refined order in the moneyed high society of Dannsburg nobility, but the underlying ugliness and brutality is still there, and potentially even more dangerous. McLean makes some attempt to develop the psychology in characters that initially appear one-dimensional, allowing the weight of their experiences, the toll of brutality and war on men to have realistic psychological and emotional impact as well as physical, but it's just a crude and superficial pretext for them to be even more mindlessly brutal; it's a brutal world and they've been brutalised, so what else can you expect?
Well, I had hoped that there might be an extension on the promise of Priest of Bones, but Priest of Lies still operates for the most part on the level of crude and dirty gang warfare, street brawls, brutalising enemies, reducing rivals to gore, with only the occasional twinge of conscience quickly shrugged off, and nothing to redeem the ugliness of it all. Tomas's reflection on the moral question of his failings can be summed up in his note that "Perhaps law and order is just another way of saying tyranny and oppression, but I wouldn't know. That was a philosophical question and I couldn't give a fuck about philosophy". By the conclusion McLean does lift the series up ready for the next stage, but even with further tantalising suggestions of a web of intrigue and spying, with a thuggish antihero like Tomas Piety at the centre there's little to assure that the series has the capacity or the will to develop and live up to its promise.