Title: Priest of Bones
Author: Peter McLean
Genre: Adult Fantasy/Fiction
Version: ARC – ebook
Page Count: 352
Publisher: Ace Books
Notable Notables: Distinctive first-person POV, LGBTQ characters
Recommended Readers: Fans of gangster-esque novels, gritty stories, the Gentleman Bastards series
Thank you to NetGallery and the publisher for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Priest of Bones by Peter McLean promised old-school gangster activity in an adult fantasy setting, and it absolutely delivered. This story was gritty in all the right ways, politically intricate in terms of characters, and a complete romp all around.
Thomas Piety, an army priest, and his band of soldiers have just returned home from the war, only for Thomas to discover that his former businesses have been stolen out from under him. With his lieutenant, Bloody Anne, and his unpredictable younger brother, Jochan, Thomas is determined to reclaim his streets and bring back the prosperity his people lost in the course of the war.
Before he can, his past as an informer to the Queen’s Men catches up to him. This time, Ailsa, a female Queen’s Man, blackmails Thomas into helping her uncover a scheme by a foreign power that’s determined to plunge the land back into full-scale war and destruction again. Thomas has to walk a narrow line to lead his Pious Men through the gang war that will inevitably occur, all while keeping his true alliance with Ailsa to protect the country a secret. In the process, Thomas finds that it’s easier to lose oneself and one’s goals than he ever believed possible.
One of my absolute favorite things about this book was Thomas and how the story was written exclusively in his point of view. But it wasn’t just another bland, sounds-like-every-other-first-person-POV story. McLean gave Thomas an incredibly distinctive voice and world view that colored the narrative at all times, and that made Priest of Bones all the more richer for it. I could hear Thomas’ accent and education-level in his speech patterns and words without McLean having to resort to actually writing out his dialect. I became so used to Thomas Piety’s voice that I would find myself thinking in it even if I wasn’t reading the book.
I also enjoyed the other characters, but none near so much as Thomas. It took me a moment to warm up to Bloody Anne, who was incredibly snappish and defensive at everything in the beginning, but I loved that she never took any shit from the men or Thomas. Her budding relationship with Rosie was sweet, but I wish I could have actually seen more of their romance happen on-page. But Anne’s status as a lesbian is never understated, swept under the rug, or sneered at, so I thank my blessings for that.
Other characters that stood out to me from the Pious Men are, of course, Jochan, who is just a whirlwind of a character; Billy the Boy, who is either blessed by the Goddess or possessed by a demon for the eerie way he knows the future and the strong magic he possess (really looking forward to see where his journey is going); Fat Luka; and of course, Ailsa. I love how McLean handled her complexity as both a woman and a spy for the crown, how not even Thomas could figure her out or ever bring himself to trust her despite his growing attraction to her, and then that ending! Let’s just say, I’m itching to know how the next book is going to go.
As far as the narrative itself, I overall enjoyed the gang politics, both internally and externally. “The right man for the right job” is a phrase you’ll read often here, and I love it because of how expertly Thomas figures people out and does just that. He’s an incredibly shrewd character, but not all-knowing, and it’s interesting to see how he reacts when things don’t go according to plan.
While I enjoyed how McLean didn’t shy away from the horrors of war and gang disputes from territory, there were parts of the novel that dragged a bit, which is why I didn’t award the novel a full five stars. But again, Thomas’ POV and the character interactions made up for this, so that even the duller parts held some enjoyment.
The ending was also explosive in a The Godfather, Part I way, and who doesn’t love that? I am deeply looking forward to where McLean is planning to take us for the next novel, Priest of Lies, as well as the direction the series will take as a whole. And if the tension in this novel was so palpable, then I shudder (with anticipation) to imagine how much it’s going to continue to build. I just really hope that Bloody Anne, Jochan, and a few others figure out what’s going on between Thomas and Ailsa and that the narrative doesn’t leave Thomas’ crew behind.
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.