Priest of Lies (War for the Rose Throne)
In my review of Peter McLean’s first book in this series, Priest of Bones, I said I kind of hated Tomas Piety. I still do, and his “wife” even more so, but this time around I feel much more satisfied with how things go for him and his band of criminals. What was simply set up and implied in the last book is brilliantly paid off here, with interest.
The first book covered gang leader Tomas Piety’s return from war to retake his rackets in the industrial city of Ellinburg from other syndicates, only to get pulled into a darker cold war between a foreign power fronting as a rival gang and the Queen’s Men, the crown’s shadowy enforcers. Priest of Lies begins a few months after the end of Bones, where five hundred more or less innocent people were immolated by the Queen’s Men to keep the city of Ellinburg out of the hands of the foreigners. The mood is set right away, with Tomas in a deep despondence. When outwardly it seems he should be at the height of his power, he is in fact being used as a puppet in the same way he himself uses others. The architect of the massacre has forced Tomas into a sham marriage while ordering him about like a common hired thug. Oh, the irony.
There is a brief expository reintroduction to the story and its characters, just enough to remind you what’s going on in case it’s been awhile. There is some humor with a parody of a nagging wife but with vastly more dangerous implications. Tomas cannot enjoy his victory but must continue to battle the foreign-backed gang under the guise of taking even more territory. When his wife/handler insists on gathering up anyone gifted with magical abilities to use in the fight, the plot thickens and they are called to the capital city, where Tomas confronts new enemies in a society whose rules he doesn’t understand.
This book is a little bit less Peaky Blinders and a little more Godfather Part 2. It shows in graphic detail the notion that the higher up you go, the crookeder it becomes. The legitimate rules are no better than the gangsters, and in many ways much worse. I get the same sense in some parts of Michael Corleone at his lowest, when his plans come back to haunt him. In this at least, there is some satisfaction.
I love series that slowly grow in scale like this. I know it’s a vestigial adherence to video games with their stepwise questlines and boss fight progression, but the sense of growth is so satisfying, and it’s used to great effect here. You go from the provincial city, now to the capital, then to…what? How high will the lowly crime boss rise? What will he turn into and how many innocent people will pay the price for it? The short, action-packed chapters keep the pace barreling along to the final explosive conclusion, but I felt they could be longer in some places, just to give the reader a breather. The voice is clear but very affected, and one might start to get tired of the constant refrains of “to my mind” and “years to him.” But I know that’s intentional. These are the thoughts of an intelligent but classically uneducated man.
In grimdark fiction you got no call to expect good guys, only bad and worse. But one thing I absolutely hate, can’t stand is unacknowledged hypocrisy. In this volume, McLean throws me a bone or two, and at least a few chickens come home to roost, and the truth that violence never truly comes without consequence is laid bare. The attempts to humanize Ailsa fail for me, but importantly, not for Tomas, though he acknowledges the cognitive dissonance in his feelings. Speaking of which, McLean’s depiction of PTSD is something the reader won’t soon forget, and adds a searing layer of realism over the whole saga and this volume in particular.
I won’t spoil the ending, but I can say I felt completely vindicated in my opinion of Piety, and I will definitely read on when the next volume comes out, if only to see if he gets his comeuppance.