Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It’s an old proverb and one I wondered about as I read Peter McLean’s sequel to last year’s dastardly good Priest of Bones. I was considering this proverb in relation to main character and first-person narrator Tomas Piety, gangster, priest and puppet spy in unwilling service to the Queen’s Men. By book’s end, I remain uncertain as to the answer; Tomas’ complexity continues to confound me, many of his choices brutal by necessity. Piety is entangled; he starts off caught under the thumb of Ailsa, the Queen’s Man he was wed to at the end of Priest of Bones, and only sinks deeper into the mud that is comprised of layer upon layer of political intrigue. The events Tomas witnessed and the crimes he committed in the previous book are a child’s game next to all that he is forced to do over the nearly 400-pages of Priest of Lies. Buckle up, dear reader. This one isn’t for the faint of heart.
Dannsburg, home to the Queen, is majestic. Shining, clean, well-guarded…and the very definition of a police state, a capital city that every real-world absolute monarch or fascist dictator would kill for. And have, prob’ly. Everyone watches everyone else; seditious speech is suicidal, drunken complaints are deadly and even silence in the wrong moment is unwise.
The tightly written alley fights take a step back for the sake of social functions. These are no less dangerous—the big difference is, Tomas’s greatest weapons, his name and reputation, mean next to nothing in the capital.
This was how society folk fought their battles, I had come to realise: not with blades but with insults disguised as courtesy. It was a whole different world to mine, I knew that much.
Ellinburg is far away indeed and that I accented time and time again by the use of binary oppositions: criminal life in Ellinburg runs amok, as Priest of Bones showed us, and rarely with any sort of lawful intervention, while the nobility is meek, far removed from events and too haughty to so much as realise its own irrelevance. In Dannsburg, it’s the criminal element that is all but irrelevant. The local gang boss is a glorified whoremonger and tavern keeper while the streets are ruled, day and night, by the Queen’s Guard, men and women who accept no bribes and don’t look the other way, as is the case with the City Guard in Ellinburg. The two cities are reflections of one another, the same power structures at work but turned on their heads. The Queen’s authority, in a bizarre twist, seems to operate much like the Pious Men’s criminal network. The parallels pile on and on, creating one of the most interesting societal contrasts I’ve seen in fantasy since Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive.
The time spent in Dannsburg constitutes a third of the novel but it might be the most striking part of Priest of Lies. That’s something of a surprise because it’s also that third of the novel that sees us far away from the old fan-favourites: Sir Eland, Jochan Piety, Cutter, Rosie and the most important of them all, Bloody Anne. These characters were enormously important to the success of the first book and leaving them behind for a sizable chunk of this sequel must’ve felt like a tiny gamble to Peter McLean. If so, it paid off and then some. To the author’s credit, he manages to surround Tomas with a cast of new and fascinating characters with ease, some favourites of mine being a colonel who served in the same hellhole as Tomas did, as well as a Lord Chief Judicar with an interesting secret or two under his ceremonial staff, or whatever it is that Judicars have.
Ailsa is as fascinating as always. Her motivations are interesting but nowhere near as interesting as her emotions, or lack thereof. Are those feelings we see, that Tomas himself sees on occasion, cracks in the mask of the Queen’s Man, or are they veils she uses to pull Tomas’s strings along? This question, too, is left unanswered. I firmly believe in one possibility, but you might prefer the other and Tomas…well, Tomas might believe in something else entirely.
Billy the Boy, cunning man possessed with demonic or godlike powers, decides to dual-class, in D&D terms. I’m continually fascinated by the magic of this world, the fact that it’s rather a rare thing and the distinction between the cunning as a ‘low magic’ and the ‘higher magics’ that’re the study of solar bodies and mathematics and…more advanced sciences, possibly? There was some development in that direction but nowhere near enough for my hungry mind and I hope to Our Lady that the threads introduced here will see further development down the line. Billy is, of course, the gateway to this whole world of the arcane and a finer gateway we couldn’t hope for.
Priest of Lies continues its predecessor’s exploration of the effects of PTSD (or shellshock, as I believe it’s called through the novel), most often with the character of Jochan but, more and more as the novel progresses, with Tomas himself. Though he seemed to have a handle on his experiences in Abingon in the last book, some events in this one show just how fickle the illusion of control that Tomas maintains is, and how easy to shatter.
Let’s take a moment to discuss voice. Tomas’s narration is extremely effective because McLean established and has continually kept to the letter of the part of the cunning, lowly educated but incredibly smart and even devious gangster. Tomas often repeats certain phrases which serve to reinforce his personality and thought patterns in our minds. It takes skill to pull storytelling like this off, make it feel authentic. Authentic enough to make us forget about the author, Priest of Lies once again feels like reading the lost otherworldly diary of one of the most fascinating criminals in contemporary fantasy.
I’ve come to deeply appreciate the second books in a series. They hold certain dangers, of course, but with the foundation laid down, so much can be accomplished in the hands of a capable author. Peter McLean proves that he is proficient indeed, taking Tomas’s story to a whole new level, bloodier, darker and more profound than before, and I’m happy to give his latest novel a score of 10/10! Along with this exceptional score, my personal seal of recommendation to all fans of darker fantasy, thrilling fantasy and Peaky Blinders.
You’ll enjoy this book if you:
- enjoy complex political intrigue;
- find morally grey leading and supporting characters beyond fascinating;
- are interested on the effects of ever greater power on the human condition;
- just really like creepy kids with insane magical powers;
- are looking to adopt creepy kids with insane magical powers;
- are looking to use creepy kids with insane magical powers to best suit your criminal empire;
- and more! Prob’ly.
I received an ARC of Priest of Lies in return for an honest review.