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Monday, March 13, 2023

The Justice of Kings by Richard Swan (Reviewed by Matthew Higgins)

Official Author Website

Buy The Justice of Kings here - U.K. | U.S.

Read Caitlin's review of The Justice of Kings here
Read Caitlin's review of The Tyranny of Faith here

OFFICIAL AUTHOR BIO: Richard Swan is a Sunday Times bestselling author of fantasy and science fiction. He was born in North Yorkshire, and, thanks to a childhood spent on RAF bases in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, now has an unhealthy interest in fighter jets. 
In 2010 he moved to London, where he spent the better part of ten years litigating multi-million pound commercial disputes. He now lives in Sydney with his wonderful wife, Sophie, their two very loud sons, and a very large container of sunscreen.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: The Justice of Kings, the first in a new epic fantasy trilogy, follows the tale of Sir Konrad Vonvalt, an Emperor’s Justice – a detective, judge and executioner all in one. As he unravels a web of secrets and lies, Vonvalt discovers a plot that might destroy his order once and for all – and bring down the entire Empire.
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.

FORMAT/INFO: The Justice of Kings is the first book in the Empire of the Wolf series. It was published in August 2022 by Orbit in the U.S. and the U.K, and is available in hardcover, kindle, paperback and audio formats.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Richard Swan’s The Justice of Kings is a finely tuned fantasy read that will delight readers of SFF in all the best ways. It slowly builds its palpable sense of ethereal tension until, with the climax, all hell breaks loose. The growing level of intrigue throughout the book does not distract from the character centred approach and holding these two in tension was very effective for most of the book.

Although we focus mainly on the character of Helena, through whose eyes we view the world and its events, all the characters bring something to the table here. Whilst I was slightly disappointed with the central murder mystery being rather linear which made it difficult to feel involved in the investigation at times, this is a minor criticism in what is sure to be one of my favourite books of the year.

Justice of Kings shocked me in all the best ways, being a rare read that not only met the richly deserved hype, but vastly surpassed it. For the full review, stick around below.

‘It is a strange thing to think that the end of the Empire of the Wolf, and all the death and devastation that came with it, traced its long roots back to the tiny and insignificant village of Rill’

Thus opens the esteemed Empire of the Wolf trilogy with a fantastic first line full of intrigue and foreboding. We are thrust into a Germanic inspired world, which although not unique in the realm of fantasy, is given enough flair by Swan to set itself apart, especially with the central focus on justice, the law and jurisprudence.

The prose I found to be an effective mix of style, without holding back the story and the key information needed for the reader to be enveloped within the tale. One such description that struck me was a reference to ship masts as a ‘forest’ which I found an incredibly inventive way of describing such a scene.

The voice of Helena is so distinctive throughout, and just compels you to keep reading. I would argue its quite a bold choice to use Helena as the entry point into this world rather than Vonvalt, which might’ve been the case in a different, more traditional narrative.

But who are these enigmatic characters you ask? Well, the book is really about the exploits of Sir Konrad Vonavalt, Justice to the King, and his apprentice Helena, along with his assistant Bressinger, and the town sheriff Sir Radomir who joins their crew in the investigation.

Whilst out exploring the Empire and responding to the needs of justice within it, Vonvalt, Helena and the gang find themselves drawn into wider conspiracies which threaten the continuation of the Empire. What begins as a small-town murder mystery soon becomes a symbol of something greater; an revolution which won’t just engulf the Empire itself, but also into many realms beyond. 

To say anymore would be a very big spoiler, and I certainly wouldn’t wish to spoil anyone’s experience of reading this book. In fact, I think my experience was enhanced by having a lack of knowledge of the book going in, so when things took a surprising turn (trying so hard to be careful with my word choices here!) it completely shook me. Not to say any of the twists were mind blowing, nor were they blasé. It was just such an unexpected tonal shift that it has really stuck with me ever since, hauntingly so.

There’s almost a wild west feel to the book. At its heart it’s a murder mystery but more than that, it’s a character mystery. Vonvalt is fairly enigmatic, rarely revealing his true self to even Helena, which makes the point at which the cracks do start to show all the more terrifying. He is also pragmatic, as a justice he only says the necessary. His singular focus is on the law and meting it out in proper fashion, and his discussions of jurisprudence with Helena were really interesting to read, as well as rather telling.

Helena herself is an unreliable narrator, also giving us future insights as she narrates the tale through reflections on what is now her past. She is a troubled young woman, torn between her duty to Vonvalt, and discovering what her heart truly desires. This is all she has known since Vonvalt took her under his wing, but as the investigation continues she starts to question what she truly desires. Her narration is fascinatingly revealing and really allows us to dive deep into her fears, creating a vastly compelling character arc. Seeing Vonvalt through her eyes is also a really intriguing way of showing us character; we see through the lens that she does and that in itself is rather revealing. My only critique would be that the forewarning of Helena works at some points, whilst at others it feels a little too on the nose with fairly consistent reminders of the Empire’s fate.

The pacing itself is very consistent, with a nice blend between the overarching storyline of fears for the Empire, and the ongoing investigation complementing each other well for the most part. At times it did start to feel a little like one plotline would be paused in favour of the other, however over time they do begin to converge which helps set things back on track.

The central murder mystery did work as well, with the minor addition that it was incredibly linear, learning the information as our characters did. That’s all well and good, and actually prevents the issue of an easily solvable mystery. However, it did go a little far the other way, as I don’t think anyone could have possibly put it all together until the same time or just before the characters. I do find that a bit of a shame because as a fan of crime books, I do love to involve myself in the investigation as I read, and that couldn’t happen here as much because we were so reliant on the story being doled out to us.

The last 40% of this novel truly was what made it hold a special memory for me, with an absolutely insane turn that I never saw coming. I fear to say too much about this in case I spoil anyone’s journey with this book, but let’s just say I found it to be an incredibly well-balanced genre mashup, which felt very at home in the world Richard had built. Having started book two and seeing this tone influence more of the narrative, it really leaves me with chills and continues to be a constant highlight of this trilogy.

Perhaps the best thing I could say in this review is that this book made me care. I cried and that’s not easy for an author to do with me. The relationship between Vonvalt and Helena is professional but beautiful. Vonvalt puts law above all, but he knows when to be personal.

He's not cold. He just pretends to be. Bressinger and Radomir have much deeper characters than by first appearances. Throughout, Richard weaves these characters inner turmoils into the book and it truly made me grow to care about what happened to them.

The climax of this book leaves us in a suitably exciting position with which to open book two which has just released, whilst still closing all the necessary plotlines in a sufficient manner. There are no major cliffhangers here, but be in no doubt that you will still be compelled to read on!

CONCLUSION: Overall, I can already tell this will be one of my favourite reads of the year after having absolutely bombed through this book. The combination of character and plot driven tension was really exquisite and helped make this book what it was, a rare gem in which the hype was easily surpassed. With book two now in my hands, I’m sure it won’t be long before I return to tell you why this is one of my favourite ongoing series within the fantasy genre right now.



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