Fuck a nun.
Those were the words that led me back to Priest of Bones. First time I opened up Priest of Bones, it jumped straight into a dark place and I wasn't in the mood for that sort of instant conflict. Found a few too many books that want to demonstrate how much sandpaper they've got all the time and I'm not always feeling that sort of tone. So I opened another kindle file and decided to wait until I was in the mood for plenty of blood, guts, and calling people useless bastards.
And now I rather like it.
But let's not jump too far forwards. One day on the twitters, I saw Peter McLean posting up a one star review of his book entitled "Filth, needless filth" and part of it contained the news that "Fuck a nun" was some character's catchphrase. And for whatever reason, that tickled me fucking pink. The day to give it another try moved a lot closer which just goes to show that whatever observant and logical framework I give for picking books, I am an arbitrary and emotional git who's easily moved by the right appeal, such as an author who encourages lots of swearing in reviews of his book.
Charming anecdotes aside, let's talk about Priest of Bones and the first thing you need to now about the book is Tomas sodding Piety. He's the eponymous character and first person narrator of this receptacle of Beelzebub's rancid emissions, the CEO, President and teaboy. If you don't get on with him, you won't like this book. It's a cause as lost as a clown trying to find their dignity. Happily, insofar as cold blooded, traumatised, racketeering pillocks go, he's an interesting one.
This is because while one half of the book is Peaky Blinders-style gangsterism, the other half is about men coming home from war. For the longest time I've been thinking it's a huge missed opportunity how nobody in the genre has tapped into that sensation, that feeling, and all that time Priest of Bones has been sitting under my nose. Why did nobody bloody tell me? The best thing about this book is the contrast between swaggering action and sombre, matter of fact introspection, and the way it is mixed together to make each half stronger. It is clever, thoughtful storytelling that does as good a job of demonstrating the beauty and misery of violence as anyone since Gemmell.
That said, it is not always mixed well. The book is a little uneven tonally at times, particularly early on when Piety isn't so matter of fact about what he's been through. It feels like McLean wanted to strongly establish a snapshot at the start and decided better to risk overselling than underselling. There's times when it felt a tad info dumpy, but it worked for me when I thought of it as Piety reporting the truth. Of course he'd explain what he felt needed to be explained. Just maybe he could have explained a little less.
There's a few other quibbles. There's no real sense of period, with some elements feeling medieval and others feeling 20th century and no sense of how it ties together. Can't say it bothers me much but there's a missed opportunity there. Ditto some of the plot lines hint at much and don't result in it due to just how much story there is in here. My big one is that in many ways, Priest of Bones feels like the set-up for the next book. It's not that isn't a resolution and pay-off for the main plot - a really rather good one in fact - but that there are so many dangling sub-plot threads waiting to tighten. Of course, as story flaws go, one that only strikes you after you've read and paid attention to the whole book is arguably the least of them as you've already got your enjoyment. Some people may grind their teeth though.
I would like to say a little word for McLean's characterisation too. As mentioned, this is a big story in a medium sized book. It is also a story where it is only logical that all the characters have a lot in common. It is the sort of book where characters being forgettable would be very understandable but the opposite happens. Personalities are established quickly and if a few of the minor characters feel stereotypical, they are lively ones, and more often than not I'd like to see more of them.
Priest of Bones is the sort of grimdark I've got a lot of time for. It's harsh, it's caustic, and it has heart and knows when taciturn reserve and numbness will cause more pain than any excess of blood. I don't think the reviews I've seen do justice to its emotional tone and ambition. It's one hell of a ride, with two or three scenes I know I'll be remembering come December, and if the ride jerks you out of your seat from time to time, so what? Priest of Bones may not be a perfect book but it frequently made me forget that.