Increased stakes, increased danger, an Empire in peril… but a little less focus?
A Justice’s work is never done.
The Battle of Galen’s Vale is over, but the war for the Empire’s future has just begun. Concerned by rumors that the Magistratum’s authority is waning, Sir Konrad Vonvalt returns to Sova to find the capital city gripped by intrigue and whispers of rebellion. In the Senate, patricians speak openly against the Emperor, while fanatics preach holy vengeance on the streets.
Yet facing down these threats to the throne will have to wait, for the Emperor’s grandson has been kidnapped – and Vonvalt is charged with rescuing the missing prince. His quest will lead him – and his allies Helena, Bressinger and Sir Radomir – to the southern frontier, where they will once again face the puritanical fury of Bartholomew Claver and his templar knights – and a dark power far more terrifying than they could have imagined.
Richard Swan’s The Justice of Kings was one of my favourite reads last year, and certainly one of my favourite new fantasy books of a few yeast (joining Mike Shackle’s We Are the Dead as a best debut in a few years). The Justice of Kings was a great blend of mystery and fantasy, focusing on a conspiracy in a regional town, far from the politics and action of an imperial capital. Swan’s story was character-focused, interesting, and well-paced. The Tyranny of Kings was, therefore, one of my most-anticipated novels of 2023. I’m happy to report that I quite enjoyed it.
In this second novel, Swan brings his main characters back to the imperial capital: Sir Konrad, Helena, Bressinger and Sir Radomir arrive to discover that the Emperor’s son has been kidnapped. Unexpectedly and unwillingly installed as head of the Magistratum, Sir Konrad is tasked with rescuing the boy and bringing those responsible to justice. All the while, he is also trying to continue his campaign to stop Bartholomew Claver, the antagonist of the first book — an extremely dangerous figure, one who has apparently harnessed magics that should be denied to him. The Emperor, however, would very much like him to focus on his missing son. Sir Konrad, used to directing his own actions, chafes at the controls and limits placed upon him, and proceeds to get on the nerves of many people, as he investigates both cases.
The Tyranny of Kings expands readers’ understanding and picture of the world Swan has created for his characters. We learn more about the various political and regional factions that jostle for power and influence, and ultimately the ways in which the Emperor is not all-powerful. The novel took a while to get going, as the author spends time showing readers the capital and its bustling, grand and slightly chaotic nature. It’s perhaps too much time, to be honest, and the first quarter or so of the novel felt drawn out unnecessarily — I found myself a little impatient for things to get going. (There’s a reason for the gradual unrolling of the plot, so that’s not the issue — there was just a bit too much focus on painting the picture.) In the final third of the novel, the action picks up, events spiral out of control, and conspiracies are furthered and revealed. So much happens, in fact, that it started to feel a bit rushed and maybe a bit messy. Spreading out some of these events, I think, would have made for better momentum and a tighter story. There were also a few times when a mystery was so transparent that it bothered me that it was so obvious to me and the great investigator Sir Konrad couldn’t even come up with a hypothesis (not going to spoil things). The novel does set things up for a potentially epic and quite different final book, though, which helped regain my interest.
The cast of characters Swan has created are interesting and well-rounded, for the main. There are some new additions, each of which adds well to the story and plot. In fact, there were some minor characters who felt better written than some interactions between the protagonists. Specifically, Helena and Konrad’s relationship — it felt forced, and seemed to advance far more than it perhaps should/would have since the events of The Justice of Kings. Bressinger and Sir Radomir are still great, and my favourites in the series so far. This book also adds Heinrich as another favourite newcomer. Ultimately, I’m not sure what it was that didn’t work for me quite as much as in the first novel. I hope Swan figures this out for book three.
To conclude, The Tyranny of Faith is another good instalment in the series, but one that doesn’t quite rise to the quality and impact of the first. If you enjoyed the first novel, you should absolutely pick this up, and I have no doubt that you will find plenty to enjoy — especially the expansion of the world and magic system. Middle volumes in trilogies are often the weaker in any trilogy (I think the only one that truly breaks this norm is Joe Abercrombie’s Before They Are Hanged), of course, but I think this could have been a bit tighter and more focused. Despite this qualm, I am nevertheless really looking forward to the final volume in the Empire of the Wolf trilogy.