Review: Priest of Bones
I’m always leery about books that tout themselves as dark and gritty. “I’m dark! Read me!” they yell. “And I’m gritty! Read me!” But what is “dark” and what is “gritty”? So many authors, and even publishers, get it dead wrong all the time. You don’t become dark and gritty by including profanity; though such stories usually do contain a bundle of profanity. And stories aren’t dark and gritty because there’s a lot of violence in them either; although they typically contain a lot of the bloody hack-and-slash as well. And yet, there are constantly those that will try to throw a bunch of violence and profanity into a book and call it “dark and gritty”, and then try sliding it in under the noses of you wonderful readers.
When will they ever learn?
PRIEST OF BONES (Amazon) has been announced as the first in a brand-new “dark and gritty” epic fantasy series about a crime boss, Tomas Piety, who comes home from the war to find that everything his family built before he left has been taken away. He’s returned with his friends and confidants from his time as a soldier though and feels the need to take care not only of them, but also the people that used to pay him their respects and are now living a low life indeed. He wants to return to his life as a crime lord and everything that comes with it. And so he does. In a manner of speaking.
The story of Tomas Piety starts out pretty strong. As mentioned by Mark Lawrence in his cover quote, the first-person POV of Tomas has a strong voice. We know where he’s been, we know what he wants, and he immediately starts driving toward that goal. But what then is the redeeming quality of this crime lord? Why should we care if a “bad guy” gets his business back? Well, it’s the fact that Tomas Piety has the determined drive to take care of his people. He wants to see them survive and even thrive in his city. He’s seen it before, and he believes that he can see it again. Only now, instead of just having his family to lean upon, he has all of these soldiers to help him achieve that goal.
The best part about the story was the rapid pace and constant movement toward Tomas Piety’s single goal. There’s never any waffling or wandering around. Even if the story is pretty linear and you can tell where things are going, it’s still relatively engaging. The ability of the author to keep the story going was impressive, especially in light of the fact that there’s so little characterization throughout the book. Secondary characters are developed relatively decently, but in a first-person POV they never do take much to get them to feel like they belong in the story. The real difficulty I had with being able to get into this one is that I never felt like I got to know Tomas Piety.
This was supposed to be a “dark and gritty” story, and I can’t really fault them for trying. There’s a lot of hype for such stories, but the difficulty is that dark and gritty is kind of difficult to nail down for those that haven’t read much of it. What is it, after all? Well, simply put, it’s what Joe Abercrombie (EBR Archive) writes. The evolution of the “Grim Dark” subgenre of stories, which epitomizes the “dark” and “gritty” monikers, arguably started much earlier, with stories like Glen Cook’s Black Company. But then Joe Abercrombie came along and made the sub-genre look GOOD. When you read his stuff, you can’t help but feel the oppressive weight of the world, the mud-and-bloody grind of its people’s lives. It is the lack of hope, the failure of love, and the utter decrepitude of morality that infiltrates and penetrates every crack and interstitial space of the tale and its component parts. And yet still we love to read these stories. Why? There is only ever one reason why we will always love stories here at EBR, and the answer to that question is the same as for this question. You already know what it is. We love to read these stories because of brilliant character.
And without that essential component of these “dark and gritty” stories? All of the stuff that makes the world a horrible place to live, turns simply into shock-value content. Want a brilliant example of that kind of story? Read Richard Morgan’s fantasy (EBR Archive). All the dark and grit and none of the great character, which here at EBR equates to a great bit pile of very little. Showing that you can still be a well-established author and write stories that amount to little more than mediocrity.
Think of PRIEST OF BONES as a "fantasy version of The Godfather" and then water him down until you can barely recognize him, and you'll have the essence.
The largest sin of this story is that it’s nothing close to what the marketing purports it to be. “Dark and gritty”? Nope. Violent and profane, yes, but not even close to dark and gritty. “Epic”? This is a tale about the looming fate… of a single city. And there’s nothing even remotely epic in that. We’d even give the “Fantasy” descriptor a pass on this one. If you took out the magic, you’d have a tale that would be, for all intents and purposes, exactly the same. It might take a bit longer to get from the beginning to the end, but very little about the actual story would have to change, and that makes the fantastical elements nothing more than window dressing. So not fantasy either. And actually, even the “Priest” bit lands itself in that same boat. You could have taken it out just as easily, and nothing about the story would have changed. I didn’t really understand why it was there at all.
In the end, this is a relatively solid story, about a man who wants to be The Godfather, but that is never able to pull itself up out of the pool of mediocrity before coming to a decidedly unsatisfying conclusion.
- Recommended Age: 17+
- Language: Pretty strong, mostly F-bombs
- Violence: Again, pretty strong. Quite a bit of violence and gore.
- Sex: Prostitution and child molestation