An excellent start to a new fantasy series
NO MAN IS ABOVE THE LAW
The Empire of the Wolf simmers with unrest. Rebels, heretics and powerful patricians all challenge the power of the imperial throne.
Only the Order of Justices stands in the way of chaos. Sir Konrad Vonvalt is the most feared Justice of all, upholding the law by way of his sharp mind, arcane powers and skill as a swordsman. In this he is aided by Helena Sedanka, his clerk and protégé, orphaned by the wars that forged the empire.
When the pair investigate the murder of a provincial aristocrat, they unearth a conspiracy that stretches to the very top of imperial society. As the stakes rise and become ever more personal, Vonvalt must make a choice: will he abandon the laws he’s sworn to uphold in order to protect the empire?
I remember reading the synopsis for Richard Swan’s debut quite a while ago. “That sounds interesting,” I thought to myself, and made a note. The buzz for the novel grew over the next few months, as it was sent out to authors for blurbs. So, when I was able to read an early copy, I jumped at the chance. The Justice of Kings is a very strong debut, and an engaging start to a new fantasy/crime series. I really enjoyed this.
The novel is something of a blend of genres — there is the obvious fact that it’s a fantasy novel, but it’s also got a hefty dose of crime/mystery fiction. After all, the protagonists are travelling law keepers. Specifically, Sir Konrad Vonvalt, a fervent and dedicated Justice with a seemingly unshakeable faith in the Emperor’s laws. Vonvalt is accompanied by Bressinger, his opinionated and somewhat insouciant muscle. The novel is narrated by Helena Sedanka, Vonvalt’s clerk, and is presented in the form of a written account (perhaps her memoirs). I liked this approach — it’s first-person, but the narrator’s perspective is more about someone else’s activities than their own. They are a witness to events, rather than necessarily the driver of them all (she has plenty to do in the story, though — she’s not just a passive observer). Swan executes this approach brilliantly, and Helena sprinkles throughout her account some tantalizing, cryptic comments about events still to come (some not-so-cryptic).
“The Empire suffers a half-dozen rebellions a year,” Vonvalt snapped. “This one will wither on the vine like the rest of them. It only seems to be more important because we have become personally embroiled. We have important work to finish here. Only then will I indulge this. It is more likely than not that in half a month, Westenholtz and Claver’s heads will be on spikes outside the Imperial palace and the Templars’ corpses will be drying in the wildflower meadows outside Keraq.”
Bressinger grunted. “I hope you’re right,” was all he said. But Vonvalt wasn’t right. He was as wrong as it was possible to be.
Swan is very good at writing characters. Through Helena’s narrative, we see each of the protagonists — as well as a few supporting characters — develop and evolve over the course of the novel. The experiences they have and the events they face challenge their beliefs, values, and more. Vonvalt’s fierce and blinkered belief in the empire’s system of justice, in particular, is challenged throughout the novel and especially towards the end. Helena, in her late teens, is resistant to committing to the life and role of a justice, despite Vonvalt’s complete belief in her abilities. She came to his employ from the streets and poverty, and struggles as her respect and gratitude conflict with her desire to have a “normal” life — especially after a young member of the town watch catches her eye. Each of the characters is well-written and three-dimensional.
The novel has plenty of social, political, and economic commentary sprinkled throughout — much of it could be seen as an analogue of what we see in contemporary life: the economic inequality, fear of those empowered to keep and exercise law, corruption (economic and religious), racism, and the long-tail effects of war. The various machinations of the elite, too, as they manipulate markets and society to their own ends, as well as their effective immunity from prosecution and censure. (That is, until Vonvalt arrives on the scene…)
The Justice of Kings is a substantial read that provides plenty of world-building, lots of excellent character work, and yet never felt over-written. I’m one of those readers who believes that authors really need to justify every page over 400-450, and Swan easily does this. I eagerly looked forward to being able to read more whenever I could, and it kept me up late into the night to finish. A debut fantasy hasn’t grabbed me like this since Mike Shackle’s We Are the Dead (and, before that, Peter V. Brett’s The Painted Man).
I finished reading The Justice of Kings very much looking forward to the next novel; and frustrated that I will have to wait so long to read it. If you are at all interested in fantasy fiction (and especially if you appreciate one with crime-fiction components and qualities), then I highly recommend you give Swan’s debut a try. It’s engaging, well-balanced, populated by interesting and engaging characters, and has a plot that offers a few great twists and turns. Simultaneously, it sets up the overall series story very nicely. A fantastic start to the year.
Richard Swan’s The Justice of Kings is due to be published by Orbit Books in North America and in the UK, on February 22nd.
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Review copy received via NetGalley