I've been looking forward to this grimdark fantasy novel for a while and its first sequel is on the shelf ready to go next month. In fact, I devoured it, starting it in the bath and finishing it before I got out, even though it's a three hundred page novel.
I'll get the biggest problem I had with it out of the way first. That's the fact that this is apparently book one in a series entitled 'War for the Rose Throne'. Unless I blinked, there isn't a single mention of the Rose Throne within these pages, just on their cover; the war, albeit perhaps a different one, is over in the very first line of the book; and we're hardly versed in the political make-up of whatever world we're in. While the book reads like any other book, that realisation makes it appear like a prequel that merely happened to arrive first for a change.
Other than that, I loved it. It's a fantasy novel, albeit mostly because the setting, a town called Ellinburg, is built in the faux mediaeval stylings of fantasy, even if there aren't any dragons. The closest we get to fantasy in actual content is the use of magic, which is so sparingly used that it's not a factor in anyone's everyday lives. When it shows up, it scares the bejesus out of people the way an alien invasion might.
However, it's fundamentally also a gangster novel. Thomas Piety used to be a businessman, in euphemistic gangster talk, before the war and, now that it's over and he's come home to Ellinburg, he's ready to take up those businesses again. The catch is that they're all gone. His aunt gave up trying to remain in control a couple of years earlier and took holy orders, so they all went to whoever muscled into them first.
Which, of course, means that the first order of business is to muscle right back into them himself, with a couple of old Ellinburg friends, his sergeant and whichever men were still alive when the end came. While he can't tell a soul, that has to begin with the Tanner's Arms because he bricked up a whole bunch of gold and silver in its walls before he left for the war and that's going to be crucial in restoring his empire of crime. The Pious Boys used to own a bunch of these streets and he intends for them to do so again.
At this point, I should mention that Thomas Piety, coincidentally given his name, is now a priest and he's been one throughout the war, which makes for an interesting dynamic. Priest and godfather are not incompatible here with Thomas a man who takes confession and gives it, to a twelve year old orphan touched by the goddess. He has some of the morality of a priest, refusing to let the drug trade touch his streets and railing against the brothel of boys over in the Wheels, which is Gutcutters territory.
However, he's also a bloody man, one used to killing others when needs must, even before the war, and he'll need to get bloodier. He's also a fair man, a godfather who honestly tries to do right by his people. Sure, he used to tax them in protection money, and will again at the point that the local economy recovers far enough, but he'll return fair value, not just because it's good business but because it's the right thing to do.
Much of the novel follows Piety and his crew taking back over the Pious Boys streets, but it's not quite as simple as that. It's not that simple even if we acknowledge that McLean does a pretty damn good job of bringing the many and disparate members of an ensemble cast to vivid life. Many of these folk are broken in some way, appropriately given that they've just spent years in a bloody war, and McLean handles that very well indeed. Abingon is a battle that left all its survivors scarred, mentally if not physically, and PTSD is a very real character here.
The complication is in the realisation that the Pious Boys streets are only so large and there's a much bigger picture that Thomas Piety can't ignore. A Queen sits on the throne, even if its far away in Dannsburg. Her forces won the war but the enemy are still out there and they may be trying something a little less direct next time. And while Governor Hauer may not know who, the Queen has a spy in Ellinburg and he does know that this Queen's Man will be seeking out the first crime lord to return from the war. That's Piety.
And the cost of doing business doesn't just mean bribes to Captain Rogan and the City Guard and allowances for the Governor. It means doing whatever the Queen's Man wants and liking it. That necessary relationship adds a serious depth to what could otherwise have been just a straightforward pulp gangster fantasy novel. It means that Piety can't do everything he wants to do and he has to do a bunch of things that he doesn't.
I can't wait to dive into the second book, Priest of Lies, even though it's inherently going to be something different to this. Our characters don't end this book the way they started it, not by any stretch of the imagination. A whole new world awaits them in book two and I hope that it works well for a surprising amount of them, for all that our sympathetic leads are rough and foul-mouthed gangsters.
I want Bloody Anne to be happy, Sir Eland to truly find his place, Thomas's brother Jochen to find peace, Billy the Boy to achieve his true potential. I want to know more about Bloodhands, the bogeyman of this book and likely one of the key players in the next. I want to see a bigger picture of this world and where the high level dynamics sit. And, above all, I want to know about that Rose Throne and who is going to have to war for it. ~~ Hal C F Astell