Priest of Bones

Urban fantasy author Peter McLean decided to switch subgenres and to try his hand at grimdark. And to be honest, if not for Mark Lawrence's positive review, chances are I would have passed on Priest of Bones. But when readers started claiming that the novel was Gangs of New York meets The Lies of Locke Lamora, well I knew I just had to give it a shot.

And even though the book suffers from too many shortcomings to be considered a gripping read, Priest of Bones was compelling enough for me to want to find out what happens next.

Here's the blurb:

It's a dangerous thing, to choose the lesser of two evils.

The war is over, and army priest Tomas Piety finally heads home with Lieutenant Bloody Anne at his side. When he arrives in the Stink, Tomas finds that his empire of crime has been stolen from him while at war. With his gang of Pious Men, Tomas will do whatever it takes to reclaim his businesses. But when he finds himself dragged into a web of political intrigue once again, and is forced to work in secret for the sinister Queen's Men, everything gets more complicated.

When loyalties stretch to the breaking point and violence only leads to violence, when people have run out of food, and hope, and places to hide, do not be surprised if they have also run out of mercy. As the Pious Men fight shadowy foreign infiltrators in the backstreet taverns and gambling dens of Tomas's old life it becomes clear; the war is not over.

It is only just beginning.

The worldbuilding is virtually nonexistent in this first installment of the War for the Rose Throne sequence. Pretty much all of the elements that have to do with this aspect are part of the blurb, which is more than a little disappointing. There was a war. Which is supposed to be over, but which isn't. Former gangster turned priest turned gangster again is once more forced to work for the Queen's Men by reclaiming the streets of Ellinburg. Why this is important in the greater scheme of things takes a long time to become evident, and when it does it doesn't ncessarily make for a great endgame. McLean plays his cards extremely close to his chest, which can be quite tricky this early in the game. Especially considering that this is the first volume in a new series from an author not known for writing grimdark. Indeed, if you want readers to show up and purchase the upcoming sequels, as a writer you need to give them reasons to come back. Unfortunately, the plot and its conclusion offer very few answers to the many questions raised by this novel. Time will tell if Peter McLean has done enough for readers to return to give Priest of Lies a chance next summer.

If there's one thing that author did particularly well, it was to come up with a dark and brooding tale that should appeal to the grimdark audience. Morally ambiguous and flawed characters populate this war-torn universe. It can be a dismal and disturbing read at times, with a plot that includes alcohol and substance abuse, graphic violence, torture, juvenile prostitution, pedophilia, and sexual assault. So yes, it can make for a rather bleak read. There is no gallows humor moments à la Joe Abercrombie and Scott Lynch in Priest of Bones. McLean went into full grimdark mode, no doubt about that.

Tomas Piety's perspective is the only POV of the novel, which is not always beneficial. Not that he's not an interesting narrator, but like the author he's not very forthcoming when it comes to sharing information. Unlike the traditional fantasy main protagonist who doesn't know anything and who gradually learns things and connects the dot as the story progresses, the leader of the Pious Men knows a lot more than he lets on. He just doesn't really want to talk about it. Hence, I have a feeling that Priest of Bones would have been a much better novel had it featured additional perspectives, or a third person narrator. Without their own POVs, most of the supporting cast are more or less just nametags and not genuine characters in their own right. Other than Bloody Anne and Billy the Boy, that is.

My main gripe with the plot is that we discover early on that there's more than meets the eye and that the war appears to be far from over. So Tomas Piety as a former crime lord returning to Ellinburg with a group of loyal soldiers under his command who fought beside him in the war and who will now help him reclaim the streets he once ruled over felt like a somewhat generic street gang rivalry plot device that readers are forced to go through so we can move on to bigger and better things. And as such, Priest of Bones often feels like an overlong introduction that lacked enough material to make a full novel and was padded with a number of violent and fairly superfluous scenes. Too bad, because amidst the blood and the viciousness, there are a number of truly poignant moments.

The book suffers from some pacing issues, especially at the beginning and in the middle. Peter McLean can be extremely repetitive in his descriptions, which makes me wonder how theses repetitions survived the editing process. Things pick up in the last third of the novel, with the plot moving forward at a good clip toward an ending that offers little in terms of resolution. And yet, for all of its flaws, Priest of Bones turned out to be intriguing enough for me to want to see what the author has in store for his readers. Here's to hoping that McLean won't play his cards so close to his chest and that he'll elevate his game to another level. As I mentioned, this first installment was little more than an introduction. We'll have to wait and see if the author is ready to open things up and unveil what this series is all about.

Time will tell. . .

The final verdict: 7.5/10

For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe

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