Review of ~ Peter McLean – Priest of Bones (War for the Rose Crown #1)

9/10

I received an advance reading copy of Priest of Bones in exchange for an honest review. I would like to thank Peter McLean and Ace for the opportunity.

The crime boss, soldier, and priest Tomas Piety has spent the last three years fighting a war he was conscripted into. Although victorious, it all seems hollow with the death, destruction, plague, and famine that has ravished the land. We join Tomas and his crew of trusted mercenaries as they are venturing home, warworn and looking to return to their previous lives. Upon reaching Ellingberg- the city where Tomas and his gang the Pious Men once controlled the streets he soon realises that his businesses have been stolen whilst he has been away spilling blood and guts for his Queen. With his crew of loyal military veterans at his side, he decides it’s time to reclaim what is rightfully his. It is soon unravelled that there is more going on in the city than meets the eye this time and the turf war skirmishes of his previous business regime are the least of his worries. To quote the back of the advanced reading copy “The war is not over. It’s only just beginning.”

I can safely say that this will be the book dark fantasy and grimdark fans will be raving about at the end of this year. It is reminiscent of McDonald’s Blackwing for the mercenary crew camaraderie, Puzo’s The Godfather or Lee’s Jade City for the crime family intricacies, and Horowitz’s House of Silk for a few very uncomfortable moments.

This narrative is presented in the first person perspective as if Tomas is dictating or writing his memories. Within the first chapter, I was gripped by the voice, the flow, and Tomas’ thoughts and opinions. Essentially, being inside the mind of a crime boss, we are privy to all of his views, ambitions, agendas, and secrets which none of the other characters in the dramatis personae are. This cleverly ascertained instant empathy pulled me in and even though you’d never call Tomas an unflawed person you will more than likely be on his side throughout.

There is a pretty sizable cast of characters in Priest of Bones and for a relatively short book, I intially thought there would be too many. The way it’s written as if we are following Tomas’ train of thought and views makes it easy to recognise, differentiate between and feel for the wide range of many different individuals within the ensemble. Many of the players including our narrator have hidden objectives, motives and a secret past existence. As the first of a proposed trilogy, not all questions regarding the characters are answered but enough nuggets and reveals are presented that it’s truly enticing although often gritty and I’m excited to find out more going forwards. Especially with reference to three of my favourite characters including Tomas’ second, the scarred veteran Bloody Anne, his brother the slightly disturbed but warrior berserker Jochan, and his mysterious, cunning, and adopted 12-year-old nephew Billy the Boy. There is also a character called Cutter who is described as “a professional murderer with a mysterious past” who I can’t wait to find out more about in the rest of the series. I’ll point out that it is a coincidence that he shares a name with an assassin in Malazan Book of the Fallen.

McLean himself described the first entry in War for the Rose Throne as being influenced by a combination of Peaky Blinders and The Godfather, but set in Tudor-era Edinburgh crossed with Industrial Revolution London. I can readily see all these influences, however; I also analysed it as having a sort of medieval Irish twang and in addition, it features lots of fantasy greatness such as deadly magicians, named personal weapons and secret assassin groups. The world building is exquisite and it mostly takes place within Ellingberg as the Pious Men are trying to rebuild their business empire and find out more about who their opposition is. Who is this Bloodhands who is just described as a very, very scary man? I’m sure a map of the city will be featured in the final edition but McLean painted perfect imagery with his lexical choices so that it felt that I was walking down the streets of the Stink or the Wheels and even feeling as if I was with the gang drinking in the local tavern before an inevitable ruckus occurred. My only negative of this story is very minor. I felt that occasionally there was slight, in my opinion, needless repetition of statements that had been said in chapters before yet that didn’t take anything away from my enjoyment. An extra point for me to mention is a complete standalone and all wraps up nicely. That being said there are enough loose threads and intrigue that it sets up book two expertly and I will definitely be continuing this series. There is a segment in the last chapter that hints at what may follow in book #2 and it’s an exciting prospect.

I’m pretty certain Priest of Bones will be one of the finest grimdark books of the year. Dark fantasy alumni such as Mark Lawrence, Ed McDonald, and Anna Stephens have already posted glowing reviews regarding Priest of Bones and I believe it will be fans of the above mentioned who will find a lot to enjoy here. Although McLean’s released the Urban Fantasy series The Burned Man previously, in Priest of Bones he has presented a brilliant debut grimdark outing that is fascinating, gripping and has everything that I look for in a crime-focused novel.

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