Take Peaky Blinders back 400 years, add a small sprinkling of magic, a tablespoon of Grimdark, 2 bottles of brandy and bring to the boil. Serve when bubbling hot.
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books
This is a review for the first in Peter McLean’s War for the Rose Throne series, Priest of Bones.
First off, Tomas Piety is pretty far from being a real priest and his Pious Men are no men of God. The city of Ellinburg has been left to the dogs, vacated by those who can fight, the people and businesses left behind at the mercy of opportunists, scum and decidedly more shadowy characters. When the war ends and Tomas returns, his first job is to take back his business empire at all costs.
Tomas Piety is no dashing hero. He’s not going to pull at your heartstrings and he has little time for sympathy himself. He’s a product of his environment; brutal at times, hard, unflinching. There is little use in sentiment and empathy when your very position of authority depends on a very primal ability to show strength and ferocity in the face of adversity. Tomas must deal with the challenges of managing his own Pious Men, businesses, guards of the city watch and new, more dangerous threats lurking on the periphery.
Despite this, Tomas does have his own set of morals to go some way to endearing him to the reader, with otherwise unsympathetic character traits. He doesn’t hurt women or children, he fights against child abuse (there’s a particularly poignant and potentially distressing scene that turns the Grimdark scale up significantly) – he genuinely cares about ‘his people’ – although he takes protection money he makes sure they are cared for in return and is a popular figure amongst the poor and common people of the city. Yes, this works to his advantage but we see from his first person perspective that his morals do drive him to protect them.
On the first person perspective, this is something that I am usually not a fan of. You have the potential for unreliable narrators, for the world only seen through one perspective and often the possibility of other characters not developing as we’d like, giving the narrative a one dimensional feel. In my opinion, Priest of Bones does not fall into any of these traps and the first person narrative flows brilliantly.
Another aspect of this book that I usually don’t get on with (but did here) is the story being set within one city. To truly lose myself in a fantasy novel I prefer different settings, intriguing and imaginative locations. However, because I became invested in the struggle of Tomas and the pious men, because I wanted to know how they’d take back the city, how Tomas would manoeuvre against his various foes (and ‘allies’) the narrative compelled me to turn each page.
Although not the most sympathetic cast of characters, there were a handful that I either cared for or wanted to survive because they were interesting. The character of Bloody Anne is both of these; Tomas’ right hand woman, a battle hardened sergeant and formidable fighter, we see her vulnerabilities as the story progresses, as well as those of Jochan, the younger Piety brother who you could be forgiven for not warming to initially. I’d also add that Billy the Boy and his development does also add another dimension to the novel without giving too much away, with plenty of questions left open for the second book.
I’d definitely describe this as a low fantasy novel, with a bleak, dark tone. Be warned that there are themes and situations which may not be suitable for everyone including PTSD, paedophilia, violence against women, slavery to name a few. The way in which McLean explores these themes however is not gratuitous and is done to build on and drive home to the reader the brutal and unforgiving world in which these characters live. The magic is rationed, which does give the story a more realistic feel compared to similar books in the genre. I don’t feel I could argue against the book being placed in the crime/gangster fiction section as much as fantasy, which is only a bad thing if you’re specifically looking for high fantasy or a prominent magic system.
You’ll love this if: You enjoy gangster stories. If you like low fantasy in a dark and brutal setting. If you enjoy Peaky Blinders. If you prefer morally grey, more ‘human’ and flawed characters, with realistic group dynamics and hierarchy.
This may not be for you if: You prefer high fantasy stories with monsters, lots of magic, knights and wizards. If you like your fantasy to be hopeful and uplifting, staying clear of potentially traumatic themes. If you’re looking for more of an adventure story or a 3rd person narrative.
RATING: 5 STARS – I I think I read the book within a couple of days which says a lot for how well it flows and how captivating it can be. I’d definitely recommend, especially to fans of Peaky Blinders type gangster stories.