‘Powerful people have power over you only for as long as you believe that they do. Then the day comes when you realise that they are just people, and everyone can die the same way.’
Tomas Piety is one of my favourite characters in fantasy, sitting near the top of the list alongside the likes of Galharrow from Ed McDonald’s Raven Mark series and Joe Abercrombie’s Glokta. Tomas is a lot of things – gangster, war veteran, priest, queen’s man – but at the heart of it all he is a deeply flawed character. In Priest of Gallows, we see him at both his best and worst, his hardest and softest, and I was totally invested in his story throughout. Particular standouts are his comradery with Bloody Anne and father-son relationship with Billy. They are some of the best written character relationships I have read. I am going to make a statement now. Tomas Piety is one of the most realistic and believable characters in literature.
‘Hard folk recognise their own kind anywhere.’
As you can tell, one thing I have always loved about McLean’s writing is his characterisation. Every character that is introduced is interesting in their own way, no matter how much page time they get. Here we are finally introduced to the upper echelons of society, the royal family, and they are as messed up as you might imagine. We also get to meet a lot more Queen’s Men and they are some of the cruellest monsters in the entire series, using violence, intimidation and propaganda to suit their needs. They are ruthless and their personalities line up perfectly with their roles in the secret police. One particular character introduced early on sent ice through my veins. It has been a long time since a character provoked such a response in me and even now as I am writing I am clenching my teeth. Tomas’ crew also grows with the addition of a new member who may physically stand out but is a natural fit. I really like the moments Tomas and this new member share. It is a credit to McLean’s excellent characterisation that the only issue I had with the characters was that certain people who have been a main staple of the series so far take a backseat here. It makes sense to the story but I still would have liked to spend more time with them.
‘There are few men in this world who I would fear to face with swords, but I fear the cunning.’
Another thing I have always loved about this series is the cunning. As much as I like structured magic systems in stories, I am the kind of reader that prefers a strong sense of mystery around its origins and workings. That said, we do learn a lot more about it in this book, and we bear witness to its truly terrifying power. However, McLean still maintains that sense of mystery around it and although we get some answers, I have just as many questions as before. I have a feeling that the cunning will play a significant role in the final book and if Priest of Gallows is anything to go by, then it is going to be very explosive.
‘People may revere the idea of heroic veterans, but they very seldom have the time or the charity for the broken, battle-shocked men and women that are the reality of what war produces.’
One thing I have always appreciated about McLean’s writing is his willingness to engage with heavy themes. As a veteran, Tomas suffers from PTSD. He is haunted by what he experienced in the war and often struggles to prevent the battle shock from taking hold of him. These moments are very impactful as it shows that even the most resilient of souls is deeply affected by war. I admire McLean for providing a voice through his work for people who have and do struggle with the same. Furthermore, McLean also touches on important issues such as suicide and sexual orientation, with Tomas’ world often mirroring both the positive and negative views of our own. I greatly appreciate and respect McLean for bringing attention to them.
On one final note, I just want to acknowledge the phenomenal voice work of David Morley Hale. It adds another layer of realism to the characters and I genuinely cannot imagine anyone better suited to voicing the likes of Tomas Piety and Bloody Anne.
To conclude, Priest of Gallows is another brilliant instalment in the ongoing War for the Rose Throne series, perhaps the best book yet. McLean’s writing is simply superb, his characterisation and storytelling top class. The chaotic ending of Priest of Gallows has me very excited for the final book. The War for the Rose Throne series is without doubt one of the best fantasy series going at the moment and I cannot recommend it enough. With that said, now starts the excruciatingly long wait to the release of Priest of Crowns.