Let’s start with an introduction: Who is Richard Swan?
I am a 32 year-old writer from the UK! I have a wife and two very young boys, and for the better part of the last 10 years I was living in London working as a commercial litigator. As of October 2021, we moved to Sydney, where I am currently enjoying some time away from the world of law and focusing on my writing.
Your debut novel, The Justice of Kings, will be published by Orbit tomorrow. I’ve been lucky and have already read the novel (which I very much enjoyed). How would you introduce it to a potential reader? Is it part of a series?
Here’s how I pitched it to my agent – I think it still holds up:
“[The Justice of Kings] is told through the eyes of Helena Sedanka, the clerk to and protégé of Sir Konrad Vonvalt. Sir Konrad is the titular Emperor’s Justice, a fantastical combination of C J Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake and Robert Harris’ Cicero, blessed with the powers of both a medieval Judge Dredd and Andrzej Sapkowski’s Geralt of Rivia. In essence, he is an Imperial policeman, mage and itinerant court rolled into one.
During the course of a murder investigation, word reaches Sir Konrad that his authority, and the supremacy of the order of the Justices itself, is being challenged by a cabal of Imperial politicians and templar knights who are hungry for the order’s arcane powers. Helena, an orphan plucked from obscurity by Sir Konrad, is struggling to adapt to her new life of power and privilege; now she must come to terms with the fact that the nascent Empire is fracturing — and as the clerk to one of its most revered — and hated — Justices, she is standing in the very centre of the gathering storm.”
The Justice of Kings is the first book in what is currently the Empire of the Wolf Trilogy, which follows the tale of Sir Konrad during the decline and fall of the Sovan Empire. All three books are narrated from the POV of Helena, his clerk.
What inspired you to write the novel and series? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
Lots of different bits and pieces fed into it, but the main ones would be (aside from my own day job as a litigator, which is obviously a huge part of it) Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy, the Witcher 3 Xbox game, a dash of C. J. Sansom’s Shardlake, and a seasoning of Abnett’s Eisenhorn/Ravenor trilogies to taste.
My inspiration more generally (and uncontroversially) comes from the books I read and the TV and films I watch, the computer games I play, and the places I visit and the people I meet. It’s kind of like one of those single pot meals that has been bubbling away for decades; a huge mass of ideas that have been percolating for many years, constantly updated and refined. The idea of “fantasy lawyers” employing litigious magicks, for example, is one that I had a decade ago.
How were you introduced to genre fiction?
One fateful afternoon in a public library in Winchester, when I was about seven, I picked up a hardback copy of Space Trap by Monica Hughes. I remember being absolutely awestruck by the cover — a robot driving a car down an empty highway against a backdrop of vivid red sunset. I had never read anything like it before and it absolutely blew my mind. After that came The Hobbit, which I absolutely adored, and then the usual gamut of Discworld novels. But it wasn’t until I read The Ring of Five Dragons by Eric van Lustbader, a thick tome of a novel way out of my age range, that my love of the genre was completely cemented.
How do you like being a writer and working within the publishing industry?
I love it, is the short answer. Being traditionally published as been an ambition of mine since my early teens, and to have that ambition realized, and so fully, is the culmination of twenty or so years of grind, perseverance, and luck.
As for working within the publishing industry, it’s been a much longer and more intermittent process than I had expected. In the beginning there was a relatively dense period of activity as the book went through the edit and copyedit process, but most of the rest of the time was spent waiting for those brief spells of engagement. All the really exciting stuff — the map art, cover art, the audiobook, et cetera — happened much closer to the publication date than I expected, and even then (from my perspective as author) there were weeks — even months — of nothing in between. My agent did a very good job of managing my expectations in that regard, but it was an odd thing to get used to after having spent a couple of years self-publishing and being accustomed to all of the immediacy and control that comes with that process.
Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
Currently, I split my time between looking after my boys and writing. My sons go to daycare Wednesdays to Fridays, and so those are my main writing days. As a writer I don’t think I do anything particularly unique. I’ll start at around 8am and I’ll re-read the previous 500 words of the manuscript to remind myself of where I left off; then it’s simply drafting until about 1pm when I’ll break for lunch. I’ll consider the session a success if I’ve written between 1,500 and 2,000 words. After that my manuscript drafting reserves are pretty much depleted, so in the afternoon I’ll chip away at other projects unrelated to the Empire of the Wolf — planning other books, writing guest blog and essays, answering interview questions, et cetera.
When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
I can remember the exact instant I began writing in earnest. My school had a computer room filled with about 20 desktops and which were available for people to use during the lunch break. My head was full of Tiberian Sun, StarCraft and Halo, Star Wars: Attack of the Clones and Final Fantasy: the Spirits Within, and it was with these key influences rattling around my head that I decided I was going to write a sci fi epic. It was a trilogy of “novels” — or rather, what I thought at the time were novels, but with retrospect were only about 7- or 8,000 words apiece — called Kinetica. After that came another book, Celestial Fire, which I co-wrote with a friend; and then after that came my first proper novel, Mindscape, which I wrote in my late teens at school and which formed the blueprint for pretty much all my future books (in terms of length, structure, and planning process etc.)
And yes, I have a tremendously strong sense of nostalgia for that time!
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
I’m certainly not an authority on fantasy writing by any stretch of the imagination. I get the sense that we have been riding a fairly large grimdark/dark fantasy wave for the last 10 or 15 years, which we are now on the downslope of. I wouldn’t be surprised if the next decade brought a return to more high fantasy and lower-stakes escapism.
Generally I think it’s a really great time to be reading fantasy and SFF more broadly. I think there are lots of authors doing exciting and fresh things with the genre, taking classic tropes and redefining and expanding them through lots of different cultural / sociological lenses. I also think authors these days are spending much more time and effort creating complex, flawed and interesting characters and exploring how the broader events of their novels affect these characters in a way that is relative to the spectacle of epic events. SFF has always been the best genre to explore the human condition, in my opinion.
I think the Justice of Kings fits into the zeitgeist by taking a fairly cerebral look at current political trends and exploring them through a fantasy lens. Modern Western democracies are having an identity crisis, and we can see this through the mainstreaming of fringe lunatics and the shifting of the Overton window to the right. The Justice of Kings is not just about the question of moral absolutism versus relativism and what justice actually is; it is also about the complacency of the (liberal, secular) state as an entity, its slowness to adapt to existential threats, and the failure to appreciate the desires of the silent majority and deal with them in a way that is constructive rather than self-destructive.
But, you know, with magic and sword fights and all murder and mayhem as well.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline, and what are you working on at the moment?
At the moment my writing time is monopolised by the first draft of Book 3 of the Empire of the Wolf, and I will shortly receive back the edits on Book 2, and so between those two things I won’t get much else done for the next few months. But after that it will be straight onto the planning of a series to come after Empire of the Wolf. What form that takes will depend entirely on how this trilogy sells. Traditional publication is a business, after all!
What are you reading at the moment (fiction/non-fiction)?
Jade War by Fonda Lee, which is excellent.
If you could recommend only one novel or book to someone, what would it be?
I think everyone should read James Jones’s The Thin Red Line at some point in their lives
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
The Justice of Kings is the first fantasy novel I’ve written; everything else up to this point has been sci-fi / mil sci-fi / science fantasy.
What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?
Seeing what Martina Fačková comes up with for the cover art for book two!
Also on CR: Review of The Justice of Kings