Review of Priest of Crowns by Peter McLean
A jaw-dropping, heartfelt conclusion to one of the best series in fantasy.
Priest of Crowns picks up a few months after the explosive finale of Priest of Gallows. With religious fanaticism gripping the streets, another bloody war with Skania on the horizon, and the ruthless Dieter Vogel king in all but title, Tomas Piety, the gangster turned Queen’s Man, finds himself at a crossroad in his life, and what he will do next will shake the country to its very core.
“Knowing a persons’ ambitions could be as useful as knowing the levers that moved them.”
The best thing about the War for the Rose Throne is the protagonist, Tomas Piety. He is one of the most real, well written and engaging characters I have ever read about. Throughout the first three books, we have witnessed his rise from gangster to governor to Queen’s Man. So, it begs the question, what is next for the bricklayer’s son from the slums of Ellinburg? That is something I would rather not spoil for readers. But what I can tell you is that I was left aghast by the lengths and depths that Tomas is willing to go to in order to achieve his goals. I have always been conflicted over my feelings towards him, and Priest of Crowns left me even more so by its end. Nonetheless, the War for the Rose Throne is one of the most interesting character studies I have read. Tomas Piety will forever be one of the most memorable protagonists in fantasy, and indeed the whole of literature.
“We were the fucking Pious Men. We had been through Hell together: if we could survive Abingon, we could do anything.”
The next best thing about the series is the supporting cast of characters that make up Tomas’ crew of Pious Men. They may be the roughest that society has to offer but they are the hardest, most loyal folk a person could ask for. The three standouts of course are: Tomas’ adopted son, Billy, a teenager gifted (or cursed) with the cunning; his brother by blood, Jochan, who has a penchant for violence, and has never really left behind the horrors of the war; and Tomas’ best friend, Bloody Anne, who has always been his conscience. I was just as invested in these characters’ stories as Tomas’ throughout the book. It is a sign of the excellent characterisation and emotional depth of McLean’s writing.
“The cunning was a harsh mistress and no mistake. So few had it, and it seemed that only a few of those who did could understand how they did what they did, or what the consequences might be.
The mystery surrounding the magic of the cunning has always intrigued me. Whereas some people prefer a hard magic system with clear rules and structure, I have always been a reader who prefers a soft magic system. With mystery comes fear and there is much to fear about the cunning. I thought we got to see its truly terrifying power in Priest of Gallows, but by Our Lady of Eternal Sorrows, I was wrong. Very, very wrong. One particularly gruesome scene early on made my jaw drop and I had to read it again to process what the hell just happened. McLean takes the cunning to a whole new level in terms of its potential and the consequences of its use. In my mind, it is most definitely a curse.
“I could almost hear the cannon bellow, feel the ground shake beneath me as distant walls fell, years and miles away. A boiling confusion of shouting meant nothing to me. Hell. We were in Hell.”
One thing that I have always appreciated about the War for the Rose Throne is how it highlights the horrific consequences of war. It is a rare thing for fantasy stories to delve into the broken battle-shocked minds of those men and women who participated in that glorious charge, endured that gruelling siege, or fought in that epic last stand. Tomas Piety has lived through them, and so has his crew, and we see the terrible effects of their veterancy time and time again in what they say, think and do. I have always admired McLean’s willingness to provide a voice for those who do suffer the terrible effects of PTSD, and not just soldiers. There are many other heavy topics to be found in Priest of Crowns, such as political extremism and religious fanaticism, and they are just as terrible, brutal and deeply-rooted in Tomas Piety’s world as they unfortunately are in our own.
When comparing the fourth and final book to the rest of the series, the popular phrase “save the best for last” springs to mind. That is very much the case here. McLean delivers a memorable and heart-breaking conclusion that provides closure to Tomas Piety’s story. And that is what the War for the Rose Throne has always been. His story. I can go away from it completely confident in saying that the War for the Rose Throne is one of the best series to grace the fantasy scene in recent years and a must read for all fans of the genre.