First up, let me make one thing clear. Priest of Bones is definitely a book for mature readers. There are lots of adult themes in the book as well as violence, swearing, accounts of post-traumatic stress, and physical and sexual abuse. All of this, however, in my opinion, is well-handled and gives the novel a much greater depth than many fantasy novels. The setting may be fantastic but the issues and emotions examined in the book are all too real.
Priest of Bones is not always an easy read, but as a whole, it’s a very good book. Here are 5 reasons why you should read it.
1. It’s Grimdark with a Heart.
I’m not generally a fan of “Grimdark” novels. I often find them as full of cliche as the old “warrior of light” used to be; the unrelenting gloom, where nastiness is mistaken for character development. Not so with Priest of Bones. Yes, there is most definitely darkness but it is darkness with humanity at its heart.
The novel is set in the city of Ellinburg after a group of soldiers have returned home from a brutal war. Tomas Pious, leader of this band, brings his men back to his home city hoping to recover a semblance of normal life. Yet, how can you recover when you have seen such brutal horrors?
Ellinburg is suffering from the effects of being part of a nation at war. Able-bodied men are scarce and food and supplies are in short supply. Into this vacuum have stepped men from the north. Men with wider ambitions. Tomas finds that though the war is over, there is still fighting to be done. At first, he must regain his position in Ellinburg’s criminal world, but later he finds himself a fly caught in a web of intrigue. Failure to act might see his beloved city plunged into violent conflict, but are he and his men mentally tough enough to keep the enemy at bay?
2. A Fine Band of Characters.
These types of novels often live or die by how much you can engage with the characters. The Pious Men are a very well drawn group of comrades in arms. Tomas Pious is an introspective man, with good instincts and brutal martial efficiency. His second, Bloody Anne, is a taciturn implacable killer fiercely loyal to Tomas. Tomas’ brother is a borderline psychopath, troubled by the psychological trauma of battle and an even darker secret from the Pious brothers’ childhood. Beyond that are the other members of the Pious Men, each of them strong characters in their own right. The interplay between them, Tomas, and each other is part of what makes Preist of Bones such a good novel.
3. A Dark and Violent City.
Before he left, Tomas Pious was a man of consequence. A racketeer, a crime warlord, but a fair man who looked after his neighborhood. On his return from war, some three years later, somebody has moved onto his turf. What follows is his gradual reclaiming of his streets.
The city of Ellinburg is a dark and dangerous place. Life is tough and so are its inhabitants. It’s not too dissimilar from the city of Tevanne in Robert Jackson Bennett’s Foundryside. One remarkable thing about the book and I don’t know if it’s in part down to the muted tones of the novel’s cover, but scenes on the streets of Ellingburg feel like they’re written in sepia. The washed out despair of the city and its inhabitants are palpable.
4. The Stories in the Shadows.
The street politics of Ellinburg keep the novel interesting and Thomas’ moves against his enemies keep its plot moving. The idea of a criminal with a strong ethical code is hardly new to fiction, but Tomas is still a fresh and original character.
But this is not just a book about competing crime bosses. There are more organized forces at work. The mysterious “Queen’s Men” call Tomas to do their bidding. To say no would be foolish in the extreme. Not only personally but for the city and his friends too. The political machinations rumble in the background adding more to the story than warlords squabbling over territory. Tomas’ contact within the Queen’s Men is a fantastic character, who adds something that would be missing were they not in the novel. This typifies the entire book; each story element has something extra underpinning it, that elevates Priest of Bones above similar novels.
5. Curious Mysticism.
Tomas is a priest at the opening of the novel. This seems to have been a convenience rather than a calling, yet he takes his role semi-seriously. This begins a low-level rumbling of religion and magic that permeates the book. Neither sits at its center, yet both are present and leave their mark on the narrative.
Billy the Boy, a young soldier brought home by Tomas, has magical talent, or “the cunning,” which is little understood, yet in Billy’s hands unusually powerful. Like the rest of the novel, there is something dark at the heart of Billy’s use of magic. Tomas is a priest of Our Lady of Eternal Sorrows, who deals with the crossing over of the dead, particularly those killed in battle. Darkness again. Death hangs heavily over Priest of Bones and whilst Tomas is a priest who helps his comrades across to the afterlife, one never gets the sense that there is any such thing.
Despite its darkness, there is all manner of redemption going on throughout Priest of Bones. This gives it its human heart, marks the characters real and makes the whole thing so damn readable. Priest of Bones is brutal in places, but it’s a compelling tale of love and comradeship. The portrayal of PTSD after a brutal war is emotionally raw and very effective. If you like intrigue, blood, and fizzing character interactions, Priest of Bones is a novel for you.
Disclosure. I received a free copy of this book in order to write this review.