Peter McLean Interview

With the release date of Peter McLean's Priest of Lies (Canada, USA, Europe) just around the corner, I took the opportunity to have a chat with the author about the novel, the series, and many other things.


- Without giving too much away, can you give potential readers a taste of the tale that is the War for the Rose Throne series?

War for the Rose Throne is a gangster family saga set in a fantasy secondary world roughly analogous to Tudor England. Tomas Piety is the Godfather figure, gangster turned soldier turned priest. Tomas grew up dirt-poor in the northern city of Ellinburg, where he and his younger brother turned their backs on their father’s trade of bricklaying and instead set themselves up as businessmen. This initially entailed running protection rackets around the Stink, the slum neighbourhood they grew up in, and progressed to owning taverns, inns, brothels and gambling dens across their patch. When war came they were conscripted along with every other man of fighting age, and they were dragged through the horrors of the campaigns in Messia and Abingon. Promoted to priesthood in the army against his wishes, Tomas survived the war and returned home to find his business empire stolen from him by foreign gangsters. He didn’t take that lying down, and that’s where Priest of Bones begins.

- What can fans expect from the latest instalment, PRIEST OF LIES?

Consequences, primarily. The events of the end of Priest of Bones have far-reaching consequences for everyone involved. That aside, you’ll see more of Tomas’s world in Priest of Lies, travelling with him to the capital city of Dannsburg, home of the Rose Throne. And the Queen’s Men. Priest of Lies is the story of a man who has regained what was taken from him, through the sweat of his brow and the blood of his enemies. It’s the story of a man who is now richer and more powerful than he had ever dreamed of being before. It’s the story of what that wealth and power does to him, and those around him.

- How well-received has PRIEST OF LIES been thus far?

Well it’s very early days but the reception has been extremely positive so far, and I’ve really been blown away by the early reviews. It’s great to see so many readers and bloggers loving this series.

- What can readers expect from the upcoming sequels? Any tentative titles and release dates?

We’re still in discussions with the publishers so there’s nothing I can tell you on that front at the moment, I’m afraid. However, in terms of the story itself the theme of consequences continues to run through it to the very end. No one acts in isolation, and even minor deeds can trigger repercussions far beyond the perpetrator’s expectations.

- What was the spark that generated the idea which drove you to write the War for the Rose Throne series in the first place?

I’ve always loved gangster stories like The Godfather, Goodfellas, Peaky Blinders and Gangs of New York, and I’ve always loved what I call “swords and horses” fantasy too. Mashing the two together just seemed like something I was meant to do. The setting itself was heavily inspired by my wife’s home city of Edinburgh in Scotland. Edinburgh is all hills and, in the Old Town at least, narrow winding closes and steps and tall, looming tenements. There’s something about the place, the sense of history and dark deeds, that just speaks to me, and that became Ellinburg in the books.

- The reasons behind the war between the Queen and the Skanians have remained relatively nebulous thus far. Will upcoming sequels shine more light on the conflict and its origins?

Oh yes, definitely. The reason for the Skanian hostility it an absolutely key plot point, which is why my cards are very close to my chest indeed on that subject. Tomas certainly has no idea, as yet, what that reason is.

- The same can be said of the cunning and magic in general. PRIEST OF LIES hints that magic will play a bigger role in the struggle to come, so will the plot unveil more secrets about the magical arts in the next installments?

The House of Magicians and what goes on in there does become important, yes. It’s something I wanted to play with in this series – the Magicians practise something very similar to real historical medieval magic, which amounted to philosophy, astrology, astronomy, mathematics, and chemistry. What Billy and Old Kurt and the other Cunning Folk have is something much more primal and mysterious.

- Although the trilogy is being billed as epic fantasy/grimdark, the War for the Rose Throne is a more tightly focused tale than most novels/series in those subgenres. In a market full of sprawling works that are vast in scope, was this your objective from the start?

Yeah it was. I enjoy reading a sprawling epic fantasy as much as the next person, but I’m a thriller writer at heart. I like the pacing of thrillers, the thing that keeps you turning the pages and putting off going to bed for just one more chapter. You don’t get the same depth and detail of worldbuilding as you do with a really Big Fat Fantasy like say Wheel of Time or A Song of Ice and Fire, admittedly, but I do think you can often end up with a more fast-paced and exciting story.

- Have the plotlines diverged much since you began writing the series, or did you have the entire plot more or less figured out from the very beginning? Were any characters added or further fleshed out beyond your original intention? Have you made any changes to your initial plans during the course of the writing of the series?

I had the main plot points of the story arc worked out in advance, and those haven’t changed and I very much doubt that they will. Everything you’ve read so far is leading to a very specific ending that I’ve been set on from the beginning. That said, everything I write ends up growing arms and legs in the process and sometimes characters turn around and do or say something unexpected that means I need to tweak a sub-plot here, a pace anchor there. I like that, and it keeps the creative process feeling fresh, but I do keep them largely in line.

- You first made a name to yourself with the Burned Man urban fantasy series. How would you describe those books?

They’re kind of urban fantasy noir, a sort of a mixture of Raymond Chandler and a 1970s crime show like Callan set in London. With demons. Our hero (I use the word loosely) is Don Drake, a demon-summoning hitman who quite literally works for the underworld. Throw in a murderous, chain-smoking angel who hasn’t fallen, just slipped a bit, and light the fuse. They’re thrillers too, obviously, but much more rooted in the tradition of Mickey Spillane.

- Do you have a different approach when you write grimdark and urban fantasy projects?

My approach has definitely changed since I was writing the Burned Man books. When I wrote Drake I pretty much made it up as I went along, but I’m much, much more of an outliner now than I used to be. I’ll sit and plot out the whole thing before I start writing. I probably won’t stick to the letter of that outline, as things develop in writing and as I say my characters have an annoying habit of deciding to go off-script and do their own thing sometimes, but at least now I always know where I’m going, where the end point of each book is.

- Last year, you released "Baphomet by Night," a military science fiction tale set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. Do you have any other short fiction pieces in the pipeline that fans can look forward to?

I’ve done quite a few short stories for Black Library and Warhammer Horror now, the most recent being Blood Sacrifice which came out in June as a digital direct download and acts as a sequel to Baphomet by Night. I’ve also written about the Tallarn Desert Raiders and the Imperial Navy in various formats, and have a story in the Age of Sigmar spin-off Warcry anthology which is out later this year. Other than that, I have one War for the Rose Throne short story called Hunger and the Lady. It’s a Billy the Boy origin story, published in Grimdark Magazine #18 earlier this year:

- What do you feel is your strength as a writer/storyteller?

Oh, that’s always a difficult question to answer. You end up so close to your own work after pouring over it for the best part of a year that it’s hard to remain objective sometimes. Personally I think that characterisation and character voice is probably what I do best, but I’d love to hear other people’s opinions on this one!

- By the same token, what would be your weaknesses, or aspects of your craft you feel you need to work on?

Oddly enough for a self-professed thriller writer, it’s plot. Characters and settings just fall into my lap like gifts from the gods, but coming up with a good story and a solid plot is hard work for me. I mean, obviously I think I can do it, but I always find it’s always the hardest part of any book.

- Were there any perceived conventions of the fantasy genre which you wanted to twist or break when you set out to write PRIEST OF BONES and its sequels? What about the Burned Man books?

With Priest of Bones yes, definitely. I’ve talked about this before, but ultimately it’s about consequences and the importance of them. It really bugs me in any fiction when the heroes return from war and live happily ever after, just like that. Real life doesn’t work like that. War is hell, and it tears soldiers apart mentally as well as physically, and that’s something I really wanted to get into. Tolkien knew it, of course, and his own trauma from fighting in the First World War can be clearly seen in the end of The Lord of the Rings. That’s what I wanted to do here, start at that end point and work forward with characters already broken before their story even begins.

In the Burned Man books I was more playing with the fluffy new-age idea of angels as sparkly do-gooders. Mine’s not. Mine is a proper Old Testament angel with a flaming sword and a killer instinct. Angels are bloody terrifying!

- What comes first for you when it comes time to consider your next novel: themes you wish to explore, a setting you're interested in, or characters you want to write about?

It’s always either settings or characters that come to mind first. When the two come to mind together, the right characters in the right setting, I know that’s an idea worth running with. Themes tend to come later, once I’ve started stitching together the bare bones of a plot, and once I have the themes to explore with the characters in the setting I find the story begins to fall into place around them.

- Characters often take a life of their own. Which of your characters did you find the most unpredictable to write about?

Billy the Boy, without a doubt. When I was writing my original outline for Priest of Bones it wasn’t even going to be Billy who was the one with magical ability; he was really just going to be a motif for the horrors of war. Young Billy wasn’t having any of that though, and he really went off-piste while I was writing him. I ended up loving the end result so went with it and moved a lot of names around in my outline to make it work.

- If your readers could only take one thing away from having read PRIEST OF LIES (apart from enjoying the read) what would you want that thing to be?

I’m an entertainer first and foremost, but I guess the key theme of Priest of Lies is that power corrupts, and in none so much as those used to being powerless. And if it makes you think about war and its consequences, and perhaps about family and what that means, then I’ll be a happy man.

- According to George R. R. Martin, most authors are either architects or gardeners. Which type of writer are you?

A bit of both. I’ll plan everything out in advance as I say, but if a character goes off-script and does something cool I’ll work with them on that and adjust the plan accordingly to make it fit. That said I’m much more of an architect than a gardener these days.

- Given the choice, would you take a New York Times bestseller, or a World Fantasy/Hugo Award? Why, exactly?

Oh the NYT bestseller, any day! I’ve never been invested in awards, and probably couldn’t tell you who won either of those in the last five years. Bestseller means lots of people bought it, and that (hopefully) means lots of people read it, and that’s what I write for. To be read, and to entertain as many people as possible. Awards are incidental to that, in my opinion. And the money wouldn’t suck, either.

- Cover art has become a very hot topic of late. What are your thoughts pertaining to that facet of a novel, and what do you think of the cover that graces your books?

I absolutely adore all my cover art. Katie Anderson at Berkley did a wonderfully evocative job with the War for the Rose Throne covers, and Chris Thornley who did the Burned Man covers perfectly captured the noir, almost graphic novel vibe I was going for. I have framed prints of all of my covers on my library walls at home. People say never judge a book by its cover but we all know that in a literal sense, everyone does. Cover art can make or break a book all by itself, and I’m hugely grateful to both Katie and Chris for the splendid art they made for me.

- Anything else you wish to share with us?

If you want to get in touch or stay up to date with what I’m doing, the best way is to follow me on Twitter at @PeteMC666. I’m far more active on there than anywhere else, although I have an Instagram with the same user name, and a Facebook author page. My website with book details, contact email, and press kit can be found at

Lastly, thank you very much for interviewing me, it’s been a pleasure.

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