After the war, we came home.
Sixty-five thousand battle-shocked, trained killers came home to no jobs, no food, and the plague. What did her Her Majesty think was going to happen?
“Drink up, lads,” I said. “It’s on the house now.”
“That it is,” Bloody Anne said as she threw the innkeeper out of the door and locked it behind him.
So begins Peter McLean’s Priest of Bones, a story that is part street-level fantasy, and part an examination of what happens to soldiers when they come home to a world almost as chaotic as the war they left behind. The narrator is Tomas Piety, who was a “businessman” before he went off to war.
That’s a euphemism, of course; Tomas was what we’d call a gangster. He and his younger brother Jochan ran the “Pious Men,” the toughs that controlled a huge swath of Ellinburg, a city divided between the haves and the have-nots. Tomas’ territory occupied the land in-between, nicknamed the Stink, and occupied by taverns and other legitimate businesses. The docks and manufacturers’ district—the Wheels, where you’d find those hardly earning a working wage—were under the control of rival gang the Gutcutters.
But war has changed much in Ellinburg, and Tomas and his band of former soldiers return to find his turf has been confiscated by a new, unknown player. The Pious Men will have to rebuild their territory step-by-step, which means they’ve all but stepped into another war, one with more potential for treachery and deceit, in which the enemy is unknown, and could even be someone they trust.
This sense of unknown menace and emotional trauma permeates Priest of Bones, and the result is a truly intense read. It’s not quite the darkest of grimdark fantasy—Tomas isn’t villainous, and may even be the most righteous character in the book. He is willing to let his men take over a tavern, but he draws the line at abusing the innocent barmaids—even to the point of killing a potential rapist himself.
Tomas is also a priest, and though he occupies the role reluctantly, he takes his role as a confessor to his Pious Men seriously. Through their confessions, we learn more about his people, until they become more than just heavies in his gang, but fully realized characters, like Tomas’ emotionally unstable brother Jochan, who Tomas only trusts so far, but protects for reasons that become clear later in the book. There’s Bloody Anne, the second-in-command of the Pious Men, a soldier who loves close up work (hence her name) and whose fascinating backstory is slowly unraveled over the course of the novel. (There are hints Anne might receive a happy ending with a female spy for Her Majesty’s black ops division, but in a world where death and betrayal are constant companions, happy endings are rare.)
Tomas holds no illusions about his people, and sees his men clearly, including the mysterious Cutter:
The man seemed to have no emotions, no desires, no soul. I still had no idea what levers moved Cutter, but if you wanted someone killed quietly and without anyone seeing, then was the right man for the job.
Finding the right man for the right job is somewhat of an obsession with Tomas, leading him to protect a young soldier, Billy the Boy, found during the war by his soldiers, in the aftermath of a battle. Billy the Boy has mysterious powers, is perhaps a magician, and behaves older than his years, making pronouncements that sound informed by inner foreknowledge. Tomas protects the boy even when Bloody Anne is wary of his power (she had good reason to be afraid of witches). That’s partly because Tomas is compassionate. It’s also partly because he’s ruthless—he’s more than willing to use Billy’s powers to defeat the Gutcutters and win his battle for the streets.
Tomas is a fascinating narrator. While Jochan is explosive and a slave to his emotions, Tomas is closed off—cold, he calls himself. But not frozen all the way through, as one his defining traits is his loyalty. There are lines he won’t cross. Except when he does, forced by circumstances, as when he is blackmailed into pulling the Pious Men into a secret war with foreign agents.
These are the bones of an excellent book, and the start of what looks to be a series worth following. As Tomas is forced to reckon with the fact that the old ways of doing business won’t fly in a city when far more dangerous forces than his now own the streets, violence becomes the only answer. But what that answer will do to him, his city, and to the Pious Men is as yet unclear. Certainly before the novel’s end, Tomas will have confessing of his own to do.