Priest of Bones by Peter MacLean
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books
Publication date: 04 October 2018
Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
This is a spoiler-free review
I had taken a long, unintentional break from grimdark, one of my favourite genres, but started to slowly return to it in the second half of 2019. Enter Priest of Bones, a book that I had heard a lot about but hadn’t actually read. I bought it awhile back because the author is lovely on Twitter — one of the main reasons I buy books, honestly — and it had been sitting on my shelf for ages. Now that I’ve read it, I’m officially adding it to list of ‘why didn’t I read this sooner?’ books — I absolutely loved it!
The war is over, and army priest Tomas Piety heads home with Sergeant Bloody Anne at his side. But things have changed while he was away: his crime empire has been stolen and the people of Ellinburg–his people–have run out of food and hope and places to hide. Tomas sets out to reclaim what was his with help from Anne, his brother, Jochan, and his new gang: the Pious Men. But when he finds himself dragged into a web of political intrigue once again, everything gets more complicated.
As the Pious Men fight shadowy foreign infiltrators in the back-street taverns, brothels, and gambling dens of Tomas’s old life, it becomes clear:
The war is only just beginning.
One of the things I loved about this book is the urban setting — all of the grimdark I’ve read previously has taken place in a much more classic fantasy setting. Tomas Piety is a ‘businessman’, meaning a gangster, and the urban setting of Ellinburg suits him and his story perfectly. This is one of those books that really captures its setting so well in that the various districts and territories of the city felt incredibly distinct and alive — I felt like I could walk through Ellinburg and know exactly where I’m going. As a reader who loves worldbuilding, this is something that’s hugely impressive to me because it adds a powerful layer of realism and depth to the story.
Something I really appreciated about Priest of Lies is the way it handled difficult topics. From rape and sexual abuse to PSTD and the traumas of war, McLean does a fantastic job of not shying away from difficult topics, but treats them with the respect that they deserve. Right off the bat, you find out that Piety does not tolerate rape among his crew. For me, as a lover of grimdark who struggles reading about sexual assault and abuse, I really appreciated the fact that McLean sets this out so early and firmly. There are some truly awful things in this book (see content warnings at the end), however they never felt gratuitous or like they could be cut from the story. There was a whole lot of stuff that would usually make me want to chuck a book across the room, however the way he deals with this conntent really makes him stand out as a fantastic and humane grimdark author.
I have to admit, I absolutely love Tomas Piety. Sure, he’s a gangster and crime kingpin in the city that has a whole lot of blood on his hands, but dammit I can’t help but really adore him as a character. I always love an anti-hero and Piety fits the bill perfectly. I found his ruthless nature when it comes to his businesses incredibly well balanced with his care and compassion for his men and the citizens who rely on him. I absolutely loved his platonic relationship with Bloody Anne, his second in command, who is an another amazing character in her own right. McLean does an incredible job of creating well balanced characters with so much depth. It’s refreshing to see this in grimdark because, in my opinion, grimdark sometimes struggles with this.
Priest of Bones is absolutely not the right book to pick up if you’re either 1) new to grimdark as a genre or 2) just do not like grimdark books. However, if you are a fan of grimdark books and haven’t read Priest of Bones yet, what are you waiting for? It is easily one of the best fantasy books I’ve read this year!
CW: brief on-page rape that is stopped, child sexual abuse, child sexual abuse as backstory, FGM as backstory, gore and creative injuries, homophobia, PTSD
Want to try Priest of Bones for yourself? You can find it at the following sites (affiliate links):