Oh my god this is good grimdark. Shady as fuck characters, a grimy city with a violent underworld, corrupt government and a good smattering of violence thrown in for good measure. The real selling point of PRIEST OF BONES as a story though, is its main character and his somewhat…unorthodox profession. Tomas Piety is many things. War veteran. Army priest. Businessman. Gangster. Mainly he’s just a gangster. Before the war he led a street gang called The Pious Men, and ran a protection racket in the city of Ellinberg. But when Tomas returns from the war, struggling to suppress his PTSD and with many of his men missing or killed, he finds his ‘businesses’ have been taken over by rivals. What follows is the story of The Pious Men and the bloody reconquest of their urban territory from rival gangs, foreign agents and corrupt city officials and, friends, it is glorious.
The premise of this story sounds fairly simple (and it’s very elegant in its simplicity) but while the main thrust of the book is Tomas and the Pious Men’s struggle to take back what was theirs, there are loads of other threads and subplots that add layers of complexity and complicate the character’s lives in the most exciting and engrossing ways. For one thing the supporting cast is fan-fucking-tastic. There’s Bloody Anne, a loud-mouthed (but still quite reserved), beer-swilling sergeant in the war and Tomas’ newly-appointed right hand; Jochan, his unpredictable and alcoholic brother who suffers from severe PTSD, or ‘battleshock’; Billy the Boy, a strange and unnerving young lad who begins to display strange abilities, and a whole host of others, like the enigmatic but extremely deadly Cutter and Tomas’ Aunt Enaid, who took up life as a foul-mouthed and rebellious nun in Tomas’ absence. The main spanner in the works though, is Tomas’ connection to the Queen’s Men, the crown’s secretive military intelligence unit, who have their own goals that temporarily align with Tomas’ own, and reveal the true source of the power gained by The Pious Men’s rivals during the war. So we get this excellent juxtaposition of street level brawls and deadly fights in the back alley taverns, brothels and gambling dens of Ellinberg with the more high level plots of shady royal spies.
And because the story is told in first person through Tomas Piety’s charismatic and authentically-Ellinberg voice, the world building had me hooked. We see it unfold naturally through Tomas’ eyes as he goes about business in the city. It gives the book a very contained feel. We get to hear some of his harrowing war stories from Abingon, but the vast majority of the story takes place in this middling-sized city of Ellinberg, Tomas’ home that he knows like the back of his hand. As events unfold we get to hear about his main rivals the Gutcutters, and the area of the city they’ve carved out from themselves, as well as the corruption of the city officials and the city guard, who Tomas describes simply as just the ‘biggest, meanest, best armed gang in the city’. There are clearly bigger things afoot; the Queen’s Men hail from the capital city, where political cogs are clearly turning in the background but, because they don’t immediately concern Tomas (or rather, some information is kept from him on a strictly ‘need to know’ basis) they aren’t a central part of this first book in the series. I really loved this, cos you know stuff is happening off the page while Tomas pursues things in the main story and I think the mark of any great world building is when you can tell the world is still in motion and events are unfolding even when you’re not looking directly at them.
Priest of Bones does deal with some really dark themes mind you. I’ve mentioned the PTSD and the harrowing psychological effects of war. Jochan in particular is stricken with battleshock, and while he does try to hide it, Tomas does suffer from it too. Child sexual abuse does feature in the story as well, mainly as backstory for some of the characters but there is one brief (though quite graphic) on screen depiction, so if these are things you want to avoid or just need to be prepared for then just be aware.
This book is basically grimdark fantasy Peaky Blinders. It must be directly inspired by that show because some of the similarities are very stark at times. PTSD-stricken gangsters who return from war to build up their street business. Even the storyline and characters bear striking similarities; Tomas is very similar to Tommy Shelby; Jochan, the alcoholic and psychologically-damaged brother of the main character bears a striking resemblance to Arthur Shelby; Aunt Enaid and Aunt Polly play similar roles; and of course there’s Ailsa, an agent of the crown posing as Tomas’ lover while working behind the bar of the Pious Men’s tavern headquarters, much like Grace working behind the bar of The Garrison in Peaky Blinders. If you’ve seen the show then some of the similarities are a bit on the nose at times but honestly I think this made me love the book even more. How often do you think “I’d love to see a fantasy version of this thing I love”? I do it all the time and this book gave it to me.
Priest of Bones was one of my favourite reads of 2020. I absolutely devoured it and, in a rare case of series binge, I immediately started on the sequel afterwards. This is a book I reckon all grimdark fans should read. Tomas Piety is an all round piece of shit, but he’s a piece of shit I loved reading about and a piece of shit with his own code of morals that he does everything in his power to abide by. And again, if grimdark Peaky Blinders sounds like your cup of tea, then this is the book for you.
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