Priest of Bones by Peter McLean. Book Review

PRIEST OF BONES by Peter McLean
Jo Fletcher Books, h/b, 352pp, £18.99
Reviewed by Shona Kinsella

I was really excited to get a copy of the upcoming book that everyone’s talking about to review and I have to say I’m so glad it was me!

Soldier, priest and crime lord, Tomas Piety, returns home from a war that has left scars on everyone. Their side won, but with famine and plague stalking the country, it feels more like they lost. Tomas brings with him his crew; men and women he led in the war as well as his wayward brother, Jochan, and some of his men.

Tomas reaches his home in Ellinburg only to discover that his businesses have been stolen while he was gone, his aunt threatened, and his people mistreated. Well, he can’t let that pass, and with his crew, the Pious Men, he sets out to reclaim his position as the boss in the Stink.

Things are only further complicated when Tomas is unwillingly drafted by a member of the mysterious and ruthless Queen’s Men. What started out as a simple case of organised crime becomes a covert war against foreign influences. Throw in some magicians, one on Tomas’s crew, and you’ve got a really original fantasy novel.

The story is told in first person from the point of view of Tomas and one of the things that immediately struck me was Tomas’ voice. I loved it. This does mean that we only get to know other characters as we do in real life – through the lens of our own experience, some more than others.

This is an easy and very enjoyable read and I raced through it. I found myself resenting my laptop a little whenever I sat down to write because I wanted to be reading. I’ve seen it described as Grimdark and I can understand that pigeon hole – but only on the surface. Priest of Bones is definitely full of violence and one may expect a book about war and organised crime to be very grimdark, but this is a much more nuanced story.

Tomas Piety, despite all of his flaws (and there are several) is a surprisingly moral character. He does not hold with violence against civilians, or women – unless they’re armed. Rape and sexual abuse is a big no-no and we see this early on when Tomas dishes out some ‘harsh justice’ to one of his own crew when they ignore his rules. He rules his streets with an iron fist and ‘taxes’ local businesses but much of the money is put back into his community. When he returns from the war to find many residents of the Stink out of work and going hungry, he sets about lifting them all up, finding jobs in his businesses for as many as possible and making sure that everyone is fed.

Whenever he is deciding on a course of action, Tomas seeks the lesser of two evils, the option that will keep as many people as possible safe and looked after. For me, this sets Priest of Bones aside from the grimdark gang. There’s plenty of darkness but there’s also a lot of hope.

One of my favourite things about this book is its treatment of women, from Tomas’s second, Bloody Anne, to his veteran aunt Enaid, to his enemy and leader of rival gang the Gutcutters, Ma Aditi, the women are well rounded and interesting characters. They all have agency and are not just there for the enjoyment of the male characters. It’s a diverse novel all around with PoC characters as well as different sexualities portrayed.

Priest of bones is first in a planned trilogy. It stands very well on it’s own with a complete story arc, although there’s still plenty of mystery to carry forward into the next book, which I personally will be waiting for with baited breath.