The Justice of Kings by Richard Swan

February 25, 2022

As an Emperor’s Justice, Sir Konrad Vonvalt always has the last word. His duty is to uphold the law of the empire using whatever tools he has at his disposal: whether it’s his blade, the arcane secrets passed down from Justice to Justice, or his wealth of knowledge of the laws of the empire. But usually his reputation as one of the most revered—and hated—Justices is enough to get most any job done. 

When Vonvalt investigates the murder of a noblewoman, he finds his authority being challenged like never before. As the simple case becomes more complex and convoluted, he begins to pull at the threads that unravel a conspiracy that could see an end to all Justices, and a beginning to lawless chaos across the empire.

For reasons too complicated to explain, it has been one hell of a week. The only hope of retaining any shred of my tattered sanity was escaping into some truly exceptional genre fiction. The good news is that The Justice of Kings by Richard Swan arrived at the top of my review pile. The early buzz I’ve heard promised something great and I’m glad to report I was not disappointed.

I was reminded of the movie adaptation of The Name of the Rose. Much like Connery and Slater’s medieval tale of monastic murder, The Justice of Kings follows an experienced investigator unpicking a series of events while imparting their skill to a novice. In the novel, our narrator is Justice Konrad Vonvalt’s clerk, Helena. Still young enough to be idealistic, she is torn between the necessity for the common law to be followed and the urge to live a more settled life. An Emperor’s Justice is always on the move. The Empire is vast and there are always more crimes to investigate, more sentences to pass. When Helena sees how her life could be, this adds additional strain between her and her employer.

Vonvalt himself remains a bit of an enigma throughout. We learn he is a war veteran and has witnessed the worst of humanity, but I get the impression there is much left unsaid. I rather like this approach. The author is slowly exploring the arcane society of Justices through Vonvalt’s backstory. I’m sure we’ll learn more as the series progresses. There is an event referred to as the Reichskrieg that sounds ripe for further exploration.

Not only are the Justices experts in the intricacies of the Sovan Empire’s labyrinthine legal system they are also imbued with supernatural abilities that can assist in their role. Each Justice can call upon the Emperor’s Voice, all that hear it are compelled to speak the truth. In addition, they all have a unique ability; Vonvalt is also able to speak with the recently deceased and another Justice can control animals. There is a cost to these magicks, however. These skills must be used sparingly. I have to admit I have a burning curiosity to discover what other abilities Vonvalt’s contemporaries may have. The author adds real depth to the narrative with this sort of multi-layered world-building. The empire is an unruly, ever-changing place. Borders shift constantly and there is a sense that this particular version of the world is a society very much in decline. Those in authority, like Vonvalt, are spread perilously thin. Meanwhile, all the various factions vying for control view the emperor with envious eyes. There are dark forces utterly convinced of their own righteousness. During the novel’s chaotic climax Swan offers us glimpses of how the common folk are dragged, unwillingly, into these vicious powerplays. The final chapters are particularly good. All pretence of civility goes out the window when an all-out battle erupts. From a reader’s perspective, this bodes well for future novels. I suspect events like this will be scaled up to offer further spectacle.

You just need to look around the world at the moment to learn that large scale social change is a violent, bloody affair. Swan’s taut fantasy delves into the nature of those who crave power above all else. There are all manner of excuses for people’s actions. Everything from religious fervour, economic advancement or political expediency are suggested but ultimately everyone is self-serving and just wants as much as they can grab for themselves. Absolute power corrupts absolutely and all that.

You can probably guess that I really enjoyed Richard Swan’s debut novel. Helena and Vonvalt make for engaging leads. The deftly executed complexity of their relationship is a genuine highlight. It forms a compelling emotional core to a whip-smart story. This really is first class fantasy with brains as well as brawn. Personally, I can’t wait for more.

The Justice of Kings is published by Orbit and is available now. This first book in The Empire of the Wolf series is well worth your time. Highly recommended

For my musical recommendation to accompany The Justice of Kings can I suggest the soundtrack to Taboo by Max Richter. There is a delightfully sinister tone, just the right side of tense that captures the same sense of dark mystery you’ll find in the novel.

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