Priest of Bones imagines what would happen if the Godfather had gone off to war in an early Renaissance world, only to return home to find the “family businesses” have been taken over by others. He takes this rather badly.
Tomas Piety, all pun intended in his last name, really is a priest. He’s not entirely pious and fell into the job almost by accident. But he’s still the priest of a Goddess of soldiers, Our Lady of Eternal Sorrows, and he’s at the tail end of a War in an early Renaissance-like world. It’s time to go home, with the war having ground to a dirty and bloody conclusion. But what is a young man, scarred by war, to go home to? Before the War, Tomas and his younger brother Jochan were the Pious Men, who ran the family businesses in a large section of their city of Ellinburg. Those family businesses, dens of various vices, protection rackets and the like basically made Tomas and his brother, under the direction of their Aunt, mobsters.
So when Tomas and Jochan head home, they intend to bring their mustered out soldiers with them. Soldiers not being paid anymore, after all, need a way to make coin, and Tomas makes them an offer that can’t refuse—join him. Some of the soldiers are former Pious Men or residents of Ellinburg, but some, like Tomas’ lieutenant Bloody Anne, are new to Ellinburg and to the idea of being mobsters. Still, when they return, they find that their Aunt is no longer minding the store and the businesses and dens of vice are under new, foreign management. Tomas and his brother have a lot of work to do if they want to reclaim their place that they had in times past. But soldiers do not necessarily make good mobsters, and the new power in town are not inclined to relinquish their hold to the former owners. Oh, and then there are other agents of the crown who have plans for Tomas’ return…
This is the story of Priest of Bones by Peter McLean.
Priest of Bones does a good job in presenting a suite of characters born and raised to city life and a city outlook. Although there a couple of scenes outside of it, I think that this novel, in sense of scale, place, and its stakes, fits in City State Fantasy in the same way that, say, the recently published City of Lies does. McLean’s characters are of and in the city, and the city’s geography itself is most definitely a character. The home neighborhood of Tomas feels like a real place in a real fantasy city with a character and nature distinctly different than other neighborhoods in the city (such as the Wheels, homes of one of the Pious Men’s rival gangs). The worldbuilding in bringing the city and its denizens to life really are a highlight of the book.
What the book reminded me of, and it influenced and colored my reading of it, is my recent experience with the RPG Blades in the Dark. That RPG has the players design and come up with a gang in a fantasy city. That gang in the game starts off at a rather low level, and the play revolves around building power for the gang, dealing with internal and external problems (including the authorities) and the personal demons and issues that each of the player characters have built in to them from the start. There are neighborhoods, power bases, relationship levels and a well designed method of showing the “ecology” of the gangs of the city. In that vein, McLean’s Ellinburg and the Pious Men could be skinned as a gang in Blades of the Dark with ease, as they deal with a rival gang, power issues, and Tomas’ own personal problems.
The other recent work that I think of in terms of this book is Fonda Lee’s Jade City. That has a city that is emerging out of the wake of a war, and rival gangs who are seeking power, with ordinary people caught between. That novel is somewhat more epic in scope, using multiple points of view and a wider scope with a wider world, than the intimate nature of this tale, but there are some points of similarity as both authors work with the same non-SFF ideas, mobsters, gangs and the interesting power dynamics between themselves, within each other, and the city they inhabit.
Does the novel fit a grimdark ethos? With a soldier having seen some crap during war, a former and future mobster, a hard bitten man willing to do hard things in a dark city, the palette of the novel is definitely dark grey. Tomas does have an inner core that the author brings through, though, a protectiveness and connection to his city, his soldiers,, the people in the Stink, and the city overall. There is a moral complexity and moral questions to Tomas. He may be the evil that fights other evils, especially given how running the Stink goes versus the times before the War, but there is, if not an arc of redemption, an arc of trying to do right. His quest to take his old businesses back and re-establish himself takes some rather interesting turns.
I like some of the personalized touches. The Dramatis Personae, for example, is written in character from Tomas’ point of view, and he definitely has opinions on the rest of the cast that he is willing to share. His sense of humor and point of view come across the page even before we meet him officially in chapter one. It makes sense to arrange the book this way; the entire book is from Tomas’ point of view and we go into a deep dive on his psyche and persona as he witnesses and participates in the events of the book. Tomas’ attempt to rise to power as the head of the Stink is none too smooth, and following him along as he attempts to do so is fascinating.
The rest of Tomas’ gang, as far as character arcs and personalities, varies a bit. Bloody Anne, as his right hand woman, and his brother Jochan come off the best with arcs and stories of their own. Billy the Boy, an odd young man who is even more touched by the Goddess than Tomas himself, is an interesting point of contention and plot that seems a little more designed for future volumes, even if he does drive some of the conflict within the Pious Men by his otherworldly nature right in this volume.
Peter McLean’s Priest of Bones nicely self-contains a story and a plot, while providing a possibility of more adventures as Tomas and his Pious men face new potential challenges in the future. I am invested in the future of these characters, and Ellinburg as a city, to want to follow them to do so.