That was until I read The Justice of Kings. This book blew me away to a point that I could NOT move on without reviewing it. Thank you, Richard, for bringing me out of my forced hiatus.
The story follows Sir Konrad Vonvalt and his clerk and protege, Helena Sedanka, as they travel around the Empire of the Wolf upholding the law, punishing those that have broken it. Sir Konrad is a Justice from the Order of Justices who lives and breathes a strict code and a stern belief that no-one is above the law. Investigating the murder of a provincial aristocrat, Vonvalt and Helena stumble into a conspiracy that spans wider than either of them could ever believe.
I have never read a fantasy story like this before. That was my initial reaction when I was a few chapters into the book. It felt fresh, innovative and grabbed my attention immediately. Richard Swan studied law at the University of Manchester, and his knowledge of law really shines throughout the story. I am a fan of C. J. Sampson’s Matthew Shardlake series, which takes place around the reign of Henry VIII and follows Shardlake, a lawyer, and his investigation into murders which leads to uncovering political conspiracies. The Justice of Kings very much reminded me of that. Throw into the mix a bit of The Witcher and Dune, and you get this awesome murder investigation with a fantastic magic system. More on that in a minute.
Swan creates a vividly grim, medieval world of violence, religious fanaticism and shadowy powers. I was captivated by the political intrigue, the men of power desperately holding on to that power and willing to lie, deceive and kill for it. One of the main antagonists Patria Claver, a character I loved to hate, oh and I hated him, is a fanatical priest who is not who he appears to be. Richard creates a deliciously despicable bad guy here and his story is brilliantly weaved into the narrative.
Vonvalt is a character with formidable presence, and he will stick in the memory for a good while. I am writing this review two weeks after I finished, and his scenes still linger in my memory. Vonvalt’s belief in the law is his defining characteristic, his intelligence and physicality are intimidating along with his hard edge and brutality when he draws his blade. He has a past that is explored to some degree and I am sure we will learn more in future books. Being a Justice, Vonvalt has access to special magical abilities, the power of the Voice being essential in extracting the truth from people. It reminded me of the use of the voice in Dune by the Bene Gesseritt, but what I loved about Swan’s creation of the Voice is where its source is and how you use it, but I won’t go into more detail, because the less you know, the greater the impact. It becomes a fascinating and integral part of the story as well as the character of Vonvalt.
But what really brings this book to life is the character of Helena Sedanka. We read the book through her words, as she recounts the events to us as an old woman. The narrative framing gives this book a fantastic and unique feel. There is a vibrancy and intellect to Helena’s words, how she describes scenes, her emotional investment, her fears and dreams. Helena is a woman of two worlds, where she came from and where she is going, conflicting and disparate and it makes for such an immersive read. She has a sharp wit and street smart that is layered in the text and comes into play throughout her journey. I found learning about Vonvalt through Helena’s eyes and voice utterly compelling. Swan is a master of immersion and that is crucial to me when reading fantasy.
Pacing is always a big thing for me in fantasy and Swan navigates us through the story in an expert manner. The story moves along beautifully, there is no sagging, no part of the story where I thought it could be snipped or cut. Even just scenes of characters investigating, working things out, have an urgency and stakes to them.
I highly recommend The Justice of Kings for anyone wanting to take a different direction in their fantasy reading. The first-person perspective of Helena brings an energy that is addictive and makes you want to read chapter after chapter. Swan has created a vivid world, utterly believable and characters who are authentic, full of depth, flawed and in pain. Framing the story around law, the implications of upholding that law, and the lengths to which you would go and how it defines you as a person, is surprisingly captivating. This is a 5/5 for me. A flawless debut.