‘Priest Of Bones’ was my first venture into GrimDark territory and it was an eye-opener. I’ve avoided the genre because I’d expected it to be a sort of Dark Disney take on the eternal struggle between The Dark and The Light, which neither side ever wins and which both sides persist in fighting using only swords and arrows and a dash of magic and which seemed to me to have as close a relationship to the real world as the Disney Castle has to Neuschwanstein.
‘Priest Of Bones’ called to me because it was written by a Yorkshireman who has some idea of what old stone looks like and because I was hooked by this quote:
“Sixty-five thousand battle-shocked, trained killers came home to no jobs, no food and the plague. What did Her Majesty think was going to happen?’
I wanted to meet the man who asked that question and I wanted to hear his answer.
His name is Tomas Piety and he’s a wonderful creation. Seeing the world through Tomas Piety’s eyes is a visceral experience. He’s a chilling mix of insight, dispassion, intelligence and will. He’s a complicated man with simple goals – to take back what used to be his and to keep it. He’s a dominant man who enforces his dominance as much by the strength of his will as by the speed of his steel. He’s a realist who knows when to push and when to compromise and how to look strong and inspire loyalty while he’s doing it.
Tomas Piety’s world is grim and violent and damaged and very easy to imagine. When we first meet Tomas, he’s leading a small group of men who have survived fighting a brutal war or sieges and explosions and slaughter that cost the victors almost as much as the vanquished. They’ve just arrived home to the stinking city he left behind and discovered that he is going to have to fight to take back the businesses he used to own but which have been seized by others in his absence.
It turned out that Tomas Piety is a sort of Seventeenth-century gangster. He and his brother led a group called The Pious Men, a gang that ran the pubs, brothels, gambling houses and protection rackets for a section of the city. I quickly became immersed in Tomas Piety’s struggle to re-establish his demesne. I liked that he was a pragmatic gangster without most of the self-aggrandising delusions that fictional Mafia Dons are presented as having. He does what needs to be done both to exert real power and to create and sustain an image that will let him hold on to that power with the minimum use of force.
Just when I thought I’d sussed this book out and was settling down for a grim and graphic story of gang warfare, Peter McLean added some elements that made the situation more complicated and much more interesting.
Firstly, there’s magic. Not that kind of wave a wand and shout something in Latin kind of magic but the kind where wizards shoot fire from their fingers and burn men alive or pull the air from the lungs until they suffocate.
Then there was Tomas’ relationship with The Kingsmen, who are sometimes women but who are always ruthless in their covert pursuit of the Crown’s interests.
Finally, there were the foreigners who have infiltrated the city and seem to be planning a new war, one that Tomas’ country is bound to lose.
These complications ratcheted the plot up from an absorbing but predictable gang turf war into something more strategic and with many more possibilities.
By the end of the book, I had no illusions about the kind of man that Tomas was but I still found myself hoping that he would succeed because as violent and ruthless as he was, he was still a better option than the other people vying for power.
‘Priest Of Bones’ was the first book in a four-book series and I’m already looking forward to reading the rest of them.
I recommend the audiobook version of ‘Priest Of Bones’ narrated by David Morley Hale in a Northern English accent that gives the book an edge.
Peter McLean is an English dark fantasy writer.
He is the author of two dark fantasy series The Buring Man trilogy and the four books of the War For The Rose Throneseries. He has is also a regular contributor to the Warhammer 40,000 series.