Book Review: The Justice of Kings by Richard Swan
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 5 of 5 stars
Series: Book 1 of Empire of the Wolf
Publisher: Orbit (February 22, 2022)
Length: 496 pages
You’d think as someone who has been reviewing books for as long as I have, I should be better at this, but whenever I come across something I absolutely and wholeheartedly adored, I always seem to find myself at a loss for words. You know the kind of book I’m talking about—the ones that leave you with a hangover for days and in agony over what to say, because I feel like nothing I could ever come up with will do it justice. It’s those times that I wish I could write, “I loved this book, PERIOD” and leave it at that, but of course, another part of me just wants to gush and gush and gush. I promise I’ll try to be as coherent as possible.
The Justice of Kings by Richard Swan takes place in a world vaguely analogous to our own, influenced strongly by the time of the Holy Roman Empire which was marked by strong papal authority and the spread of the Church. The story is told through the eyes of a young woman named Helena, the nineteen-year-old clerk and perhaps one day the apprentice to the Emperor’s Justice Sir Konrad Vonvalt. On his travels across the vast expanse of the empire, it is Vonvalt’s duty to ensure that its laws are being observed and followed. Safeguarding the peace and doling out justice wherever he goes, his authority is only second to the Emperor’s.
And wherever Vonvalt goes, Helena is also by his side to assist him, as it has been so since he rescued her from an orphanage when she was child. Traveling with the Justice is also his steadfast friend and protector, the veteran soldier Dubine Bressinger. As the three of them arrive at a town under investigation for suspected heathen practices, Vonvalt shows his dedication to upholding the law but also his compassion for the villagers who simply want to worship their old gods. This act of mercy, however, may have just doomed them all. It soon becomes clear there is more to the situation beneath the surface. The brazen murder of a Baron’s wife may be involved, which sets Vonvalt, Helena, and Bressinger on the trail of an unknown killer. Still, a simple investigation isn’t going to cut it this time, as the layers of the case peel back to reveal a darker conspiracy rotting at the heart of the Empire.
The entire story is told in retrospect by a much older Helena, recalling the adventures of her youth. It may be a common fantasy trope but it’s one of my favorites, and I loved the juxtaposition between the character’s wiser, more seasoned narration describing the naïve, fresh-faced, and impulsive girl she used to be. And young Helena is most certainly someone still struggling to find herself. Having been in Sir Konrad Vonvalt’s service since she was a child, she’s forever grateful to him for giving her a future even though she harbors doubts about whether she actually enjoys the work. Still, she respects Vonvalt too much to voice her concerns, even as the constant pressure to seek his approval frequently makes her grumpy and resentful, leading her to rebel in little ways, much like how a teenager would test the limits of her father.
Which brings me to the best part of the book: the expertly written mentor/apprentice relationship. Speaking of tropes I love, this is another one of my favorites. In many ways, Vonvalt and Helena in The Justice of Kings reminded me very much of Merela and Girton in The Wounded Kingdom trilogy by RJ Barker (which, incidentally, is another amazing fantasy series you should not miss). Both are narrated by protagonists looking back on their apprenticeships to mentors who were more parent than teacher. From the tone of older Helena, it was clear she had much fondness for Vonvalt and vice versa, though neither were quite equipped to show it. There were just so many nuances in their dynamic, so much the reader could read into the subtle complexities of their bond, that I was simply consumed with the masterful way in which all of this was conveyed.
The characters themselves were deep and superbly written. The more time I spent with them, the more I felt involved in their lives and cared about what happened to them. My heart was in my throat whenever they found themselves in danger, or if one of them had a brush with death. I even found my eyes tearing up for minor characters when tragedy befell them. My favorites were of course Helena, Vonvalt, and Bressinger, but I pretty much felt involved with all of the supporting cast and even the villains.
Finally, I can’t end this review without mentioning the story or the world-building, so well entwined that both were equally important in bringing the setting to life for me. The Justice of Kings starts off as a murder mystery, but quickly develops into something much greater and far more satisfying. For a Justice has more in their toolkit than just the authority granted to him or her by the Emperor; skilled ones like Vonvalt can also work a form of magic, enabling them to imbue their voice with the power to compel, or even use necromancy to talk to the dead. A vast conspiracy also drives the plot, as a power struggle in the capital threatens to undermine the power of the Justices. To an honorable man like Vonvalt, who is firm in his belief in the law and that no one is above it, it is a harsh truth to accept, and it’s fascinating to watch how the effects of this conflict gradually weigh him down.
Funny how I started this review feeling at a loss for words, and now I have to force myself to stop before I rave on for another ten paragraphs! While I’m aware it’s only February, I have a feeling this will be my favorite book of the year as it’s going to be damn difficult to unseat. Fantasy, mystery, drama, intrigue, action—The Justice of Kings has it all. Needless to say, I loved this book to bits, and I am wholeheartedly recommending it to everyone! It certainly ended far too soon, and I cannot wait for the next installment.