Nathan’s review of The Tyranny of Faith by Richard Swan
Now this is how you write a sequel.
I read the first book in the Empire of the Wolf series, The Justice of Kings, last year and I really enjoyed it. It wasn’t my favorite book (it didn’t make by Top 20 of 2022 list), but I thought it was a fun mashup of Law and Order with epic fantasy. Then I started to see The Justice of Kings appear on a bunch of “End of the Year” lists from reviewers I really respected, and I was wondering if I missed something.
Well, whether I was too harsh on The Justice of Kings or not, The Tyranny of Faith is a superb sequel that raises the stakes in every conceivable way. It ups the ante in terms of plot, character, and magic, while also further exploring themes of empire and colonialism. There is no “second-book syndrome” here.
The Tyranny of Faith picks up pretty quickly after the events of The Justice of Kings. Claver, the religious fanatic with unheard of magical powers, is still on a quest to conquer the Empire of the Wolf, while Vonvalt, Helena, Radomir, and Bressinger are seeking the power to stop in. Almost immediately our favorite characters are confronted with new troubles – Vonvolt has a mysterious supernatural illness, and a very important character goes missing. These new plot developments introduce new mysteries that allow Richard Swan to continue to flex his legal muscles, but in a way that feel like a natural continuation of the plot of The Justice of Kings rather than just plot filler to pad out a second volume in a fantasy series.
If you really enjoyed the legal actions and ponderings of The Justice of Kings, you will find so much to sink your teeth into in The Tyranny of Faith. Swan further explores big ethical questions: What is the nature of law? What is the purpose of law and justice? Who benefits from the law? Is it better to follow the letter of the law or the spirit of the law? Who gets to be the final adjudicator? None of these thematic questions overwhelm the plot, but the characters are forced to grapple with these grey areas. As many nations in our world, especially the U.S., continue to question the theories and policies of criminal justice, The Tyranny of Faith feels particularly prescient. This is what I absolutely love about the fantasy genre. It allows authors to explore, think about, and comment upon our real world through fictional rules and circumstances. How does justice change when you can use magic to force someone to tell you the truth? When does that violate someone’s rights? And what is someone doesn’t know if they are lying? Vonvalt particularly has many tough choices in The Tyranny of Faith, and readers won’t always agree with what he ultimately decides.
In addition to exploring legal ethics, Swan pushes tough decisions about the nature of empire onto his characters. Vonvolt is a high-ranking official within the Empire of the Wolf and is at least marginally successful for its success of subjugating new peoples (for better or for worse). The characters in The Tyranny of Faith are confronted with both the benefits and horrors of colonialization and empire expansion. Swan pushes them into ethical corners where they need to consider what their place in the Empire actually is, and how much they want to support it. These ethical quandaries helped deepen and develop Swan’s characters; they allow the reader to understand that these are complex, three-dimensional people with oft-contradictory thoughts, beliefs, desires, and goals. This made Swan’s world complex and messy in the best possible ways.
Outside of the thematic explorations, this is just simply a compulsively readable sequel. I was in a bit of a reading slump before this book and Swan pulled me right out of it. Did you think there weren’t enough politics in The Justice of Kings? Well, here the characters travel all around the empire, dealing with everyone from the most colonized and oppressed to the Emperor himself. The conflict between the different powerful institutions of the Empire continues to rage and clash. Did you think there wasn’t enough magic in The Justice of Kings? Well, here there are creepy demons, purgatory dream worlds, necromantic zombies, and more. Did you think there wasn’t enough action in The Justice of Kings? Well, here there are more battles (big and small) with swords and magic and more.
And Swan does this all while avoiding plot sprawl. The world and story here feel so much more expansive, while still pretty much just focusing on the characters we already knew in Book One. Our favorite characters are not sidelined just to introduce new characters and plot arcs. This book is perfectly paced and tightly plotted in a way that keep you tearing through the pages.
I’m always down for a book about necromancy, and I really liked how Swan uses it as part of the worldbuilding this series. I’m going to be careful in my notes here because I want to avoid spoilers, but whenever magic in fantasy books involve death – necromancy, traveling to the afterlife, etc., I always get a bit hesitant. Usually these kinds of magic are just a “get out of jail free card” for authors to bring back dead characters at their own whims. This cheapens the emotional stakes of many fantasy books. I’m not saying what does or does not happen in The Tyranny of Faith, but Swan doesn’t ever feel like he cheapens his own narrative with necromantic powers. Everything that happens feels earned and makes sense in the context of the narrative.
I also love Swan’s prose style and his decision to make this series a journal or memoir by Helena. The first reason I like this is because it keeps Vonvalt – probably the most complex and interesting character – a bit at arm’s length. I talked about this phenomenon in my review of the Tide Child Trilogy by RJ Barker, and Swan uses it to equal success. Making Vonvalt a POV character would be too easy, as we would know exactly what he is always thinking. By filtering Vonvolt through Helena’s eyes, as readers we get to be intrigued by Vonvalt as Swan slowly peels back Vonvolt’s many layers. We also join Helena in the slow process of disillusionment; as we slowly learn more about Vonvalt we stop seeing him as a perfect and impenetrable figure, and see him for the conflict and vulnerable man he really is. The other thing I really like about Helena’s narration is that we get the story distilled through someone who is older, more experienced, and knows what is coming next. Swan doesn’t over-use this narrative device, but I like the small hints we get of what is to come later in the story, or even future books in the series.
Helena is also just an amazing POV character in her own right. She’s at a transitional state that we don’t often see in fantasy fiction. She’s old enough that she’s already completed her “coming of age” narrative, and now she’s entering into that stage of adulthood where we become disillusioned with the world. Where we are actually at the point where we have to question everything we thought we were fighting for. Helena is on the other side of “the coming of age” narrative. This puts her in a transitional or liminal state. She is still in her training to become a Justice of the Magistratum in her own right, while also wondering if that is the best or even most ethical path. In The Justice of Kings Helena sometimes didn’t feel like a fully complex character; at time she felt like a vessel for the story to be told rather than a character Swan was interested in her own right. None of these concerns exist in the Tyranny of Faith as Helena truly comes into her own.
The Tyranny of Faith improves on The Justice of Kings in every conceivable way. I highly recommend this sequel.
Concluding Thoughts: An exciting and propulsive sequel, The Tyranny of Faith takes everything that worked in The Justice of Kings and ratches it up. From the dark, religious threats to the ethical quandaries of the characters, Swan expertly weaves a world that feels deeper and bigger while avoiding an overstuffed and drawn out second volume. This book took me from “liking” to “loving” this series. I’m ready to slam my credit card down for Book Three.