You know what, I think my blog is quite an open place, I think I’m quite conversational when I’m talking about books and I’ve never shied away from expressing my political opinions here, so I’m just gonna preface this review by saying I’m trying to write it while the Israeli security forces are forcibly evicting Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem, the military is bombing tenement blocks in Gaza, and armed settlers and lynch mobs are attacking Palestinian civilians in the streets. So forgive me if this review ends up being a bit scattered cos I’m having a hard time concentrating right about now. I don’t know if that belongs at the start of a book review but at the minute I don’t really give a shit. With that lil disclaimer out the way, let me just tell you that Peter McLean knows how to fucking write! And he knows how to write great grimdark.
I remember thinking what I used to think of as a small weakness in the first book was that, despite it being a gripping and utterly captivating story, there was little standing in the way of Tomas and The Pious Men’s rise to power. Usually in a traditional narrative there’s some setback partway through that the protagonist has to overcome, some adversity that makes it appear all is lost, only for our tenacious and determined hero to overcome it all against the odds. In Priest of Bones though, Tomas’ ascent to power was petty inexorable, backed as he was by his own reserves of wealth and the political power of the Queen’s Men and the crown. I realise now how I misunderstood that book. Before the main story begins in Priest of Lies, there’s an epigraph from Abraham Lincoln, stating that “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power”. Putting aside whether I think Lincoln was being insightful or accurate here (I don’t), I think it sums these books up incredibly succinctly, and in this second instalment we get to see just how the accumulation of power affects Tomas, cos we’re going on a road trip nerds! That’s right, in Priest of Lies Ailsa persuades Tomas to accompany her to the capital city of Dannsburg, there to mingle with the great and the good, or more accurately the sly and the power-hungry. He meets the movers and shakers of Dannsburg, members of the ruling nobility and the puppet masters of the secret network of spies he’s become a tool of. This was a great way to expand the story on a whole bunch of levels.
First off, it expanded the world-building. Most (if not all) of the first book took part within the city of Ellinburg. That was great; where a lot of fantasy stories take place across globe-spanning empires and kingdoms, Ellinburg is Tomas’ realm. He knows it like the back of his hand and we got to experience its piss-soaked back alleys, disreputable taverns and unsavoury gambling dens very intimately as he set about reconquering them. Now that’s done though it’s a very shrewd move to take us out of the little league, out of Tomas’ comfort zone where he is judge, jury and executioner and turn him into a little Ellinburg fish in a big Dannsburg pond. The people Ailsa rubs shoulders with there look down on him as some quaint and unsophisticated hinterlander and they don’t fight with swords and knives, but with sharp tongues and a quiet whisper in the right ear. Though, as you might expect, the results are no less violent or bloody. So for all he’s in a bigger pond, Tomas is also a fish out of water for a good chunk of this book, and has to adjust his approach to solving his problems when he can’t simply stab a man in the neck. Not directly anyway. And that’s the second part of how McLean builds on the previous book instead of simply writing more of the same. It gives Tomas new and unfamiliar obstacles that he can’t rely on his tried and tested methods to overcome. He is, after all, a soldier and not a diplomat. But if he truly wants to walk the halls of real power, then he’s gonna have to become both.
During all that though, his trusty sergeant Bloody Anne is running things in his place back in Ellinburg, where the Pious Men still have their own problems and tensions are starting to escalate among Tomas’ own men, some of whom are beginning to question his leadership. And so there’s no shortage of blood and violence, yet none of it gratuitous, all of it highlighting some aspect of the cutthroat world The Pious Men live in or giving us further insight into the things they’ll do to maintain and enhance their power. And so we get a brutal ritual that shows how The Pious Men treat turncoats and an incredibly-well foreshadowed scene involving a rather ferocious bear that shows what you can expect from Tomas Piety if you make an enemy of him. And all of this told through the unique first-person perspective of Tomas himself. Tomas is actually a man of few words in many ways and his direct and no-nonsense manner of speaking continues to have me hooked. Cos of that too there’s not an ounce of fat on the bones of the prose; it’s lean and stark an every sentence drives the plot along so that I never actually wanted to put the book down. The chapters are mostly short and sharp and kind of had that ‘one more turn’ vibe I get when playing Civ haha. ‘Just one more chapter’, until I realise it’s after midnight and I’ve got work in the morning but fuck it I don’t care cos I need to know what happens next!
This is some top notch grimdark man. Just top tier storytelling in general and I remember finishing the final chapter and (I mean this very literally) wailing into my pillow, both with satisfaction at this book but also frustration that I had to wait for the next one. Cos, no kidding, I started Priest of Lies immediately after finishing Priest of Bones and I no shit would have opened up Priest of Gallows straight after if I had the option. Lucky for me it’s out later this month (at the time of writing) and I’m already starting to see some advance reviews come out that make me confident Mr McLean ain’t gonna disappoint me. Get your grimdark on bookwyrms and read the War for the Rose Throne books immediately, I pretty much guarantee you’ll thank me for it.
Did you enjoy this review? Find it useful? Follow the blog and never miss a post!