Here's book two in the 'War for the Rose Throne' grimdark fantasy series and we still don't have either a war or a Rose Throne, which seems a little odd. At least the latter is mentioned here, if only once, I believe, but we never see it or the Queen who sits upon it. What we do get is a little closer to it.
The first book, 'Priest of Bones', saw Thomas Piety return from the war that ended right before we join the story to his home town of Ellinburg, where he was what he would describe as a businessman, a word that translates for our purposes into gangster and godfather. He ran the Pious Boys, who in turn ran the streets of the Stink, in the southeast of the town. Much of 'Priest of Bones' involved him taking back those streets and more.
It ended like a prequel might end, with Piety and his empire re-established and ready to take on whatever the series plans to throw their way. The Pious Boys now run the entire east of Ellinburg, having seized the Wheels from the Gutcutters. However, the west of the city is in the hands of the enemy, most obviously in the form of Bloodhands, the mostly unseen villain of the first book, who is now much more visible under the name of Klaus Vhent.
Vhent isn't only Piety's enemy in terms of gangland rivalries, as the leader of the Northern Sons, but also the nation's enemy, because he's from Skania and is widely seen as representing that country's interests in Ellinburg. It might be fair to say that there's a Cold War for the Rose Throne but it has the form of a set of gangland skirmishes in the streets rather than pitched battles between soldiers.
So 'Priest of Lies' increases the scope of Piety's concern from the east of the city to the west, but it also trawls in a visit to Dannsburg, where the Rose Throne we don't see is situated. It's the capital of this nation whose name keeps eluding me and, while Piety has no wish to visit it, he has to do so because he's been summoned. Why is the next question.
I was in mixed feelings about this trip to Dannsburg but in a good way. The slower pace of society in the capital frustrates Piety and it frustrated me too because, like him, I wanted to know what was going on back in Ellinburg. How was Bloody Anne coping during his time away? Brief cryptic messages are all Piety gets so that's all we get. However, his time in Dannsburg expands our knowledge of his nation considerably and all my favourite parts of this book happen there.
I don't want to spoil anything, so let's just say that Piety is a bloody man even when he's playing his part in high society. Of course he and Ailsa, his wife and Queen's Man, eventually find themselves up against certain types of problem that need certain types of solution and Piety naturally makes it so. There's a lot of irony in what he does and how he does it and I haven't been as much on his side as I was during these Dannsburg scenes.
I'm not going to spoil what happens with the other characters that we got to know well in 'Priest of Bones' either, because anyone coming back after that one for more is going to want to know what's new with Bloody Anne and Jochen and Billy the Boy and the rest. I'll happily say that there are a number of story arcs in motion and, while I'd have liked to have spent more time with these characters, I'm not unhappy with any of their story arcs.
What I'll also say is that magic is clearly going to be important as we move on. It was there in the first book, in two classes. The lower class of magic is epitomised by "cunning" men and women, people who have an inherent talent but no training. They use their power for a small price, working as healers or herbalists or the solvers of unusual problems. The upper class are actual sorcerers who are trained in Dannsburg at an academy and, we assume, have a much greater range of powers. Well, this book brings with it a revelation of potential major importance to the series and I'm intrigued to see where that will take us, beyond one more fantastic scene in Dannsburg.
As with 'Priest of Bones', I devoured this book in a single go. It's a fast pulp read and McLean knows exactly how to make us keep the pages turning and not put the damn thing down until we're done. If McLean were a cunning man able to churn out one of these books a week, I'd be reading fast enough to keep right up with him.
Also, as with 'Priest of Bones', I got the impression that we're still in prequel territory. If the first book felt like it ended at a logical point for the series proper to begin, then I would call this a second half to the first book. It continues and expands and details and it ends up at an even more logical point for the series proper to begin. If the War for the Rose Throne could be likened to a game of chess, then all the pieces would seem to be in place now and we're ready for the game to begin.
I should add that the most obvious downside appears to be one I'm not aware of because it's an abstraction. Readers either love these books or hate them and those who hate them seem to be those who have watched the TV show called 'Peaky Blinders', which I haven't. It seems that there are enough parallels between the show and the books and those parallels run deep enough into the characters that at least some fans of the show have accused McLean of having merely translated it into fantasy. I have no dog in this fight, let alone a bear, so I'll reiterate that I loved these books and may well now seek out a show I haven't previously watched because of this odd controversy.
So, where's book three? ~~ Hal C F Astell
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