Nathan’s review of Trials of Empire by Richard Swan
I don’t even know where to start with this review other than to say…wow.
This book just might be the Platonic ideal of a trilogy-ending epic. It has taken me a while to even get to writing this review because this book absorbed me so deeply, spun be around, and then spit me back out. My jaw was open the entire time I read it, and I’ve needed quite the recovery period.
My short review is that you should dive into The Trials of Empire as soon as you possibly can. If you’ve read the previous two books in the series, don’t worry about this one not living up to any of your lofty expectations. This book beautifully brings the entire trilogy to a close. Every aspect of this book – from the plots, to the character arcs, to the themes – beautifully conclude, culminating in what will hopefully go down as one of the great epic fantasy trilogies of the decade. I know I read this book in January, but it will already be tough to push off my “Best of 2024” list.
Back when I first read The Justice of Kings, I was entertained but not blown away. I enjoyed the “Law and Order: Fantasy Edition” vibes, but it was nothing mind-blowing. However, The Trials of Empire has completely changed my perspective on the entire trilogy. I see what Swan was doing now, as he was slowly ramping up the intensity and adding layer upon layer of ethical quanderies for our characters to work through. The Justice of Kings presented a (relatively) black and white worldview. There were good guys and bad guys. Justice and injustice. These were pretty clearly defined for the reader, and Konrad Vonvolt (through the narration of Helena) came across as a Good Guy (TM).
Vonvolt has gradually become one of my favorite characters in all of fantasy. He has a personal code of ethics, but we see as those ethics slowly change (decay?) as he is presented with new situations. He tries to shove the horrifying, demon-infested nature of his latest threat into his old worldview without hesitation. The problem is that new circumstances often require us to challenge and change our ethics, for what is “the good” in times of peace may quickly be revealed to be inadequate or wrong when pushed the limit. There is nothing like a supernatural threat to demonstrate that much of what we think of as “moral” behavior is idealized or even flat out wrong.
Each new entry in this trilogy has challenged our view of Vonvolt and the entire world Swan has been creating here. This ratchets up to the extreme in this final voume to the point where I wasn’t always sure if Vonvolt was a hero or a villain, or if heroes or villains even exist. This book challenges the readers to question some fundamental assumptions we have about the world; what is good? what is just? what does it mean to be human? The answers Helena and Vonvolt would give to these answers become increasingly fraught and distant from one another, providing a rich tapestry on which Swan builds in quite messy yet fascinating character development and interactions.
This is all even better because we continue to see Vonvolt through the eyes of Helena. We never get inside Vonvolt’s head, and this continues to be a highlight of the series. Vonvolt is almost a mythic character in this world, someone with immense power and authority. Swan keeps us readers at arms length from this fascinating man, which only adds to both the allure (both as an amazing character, but also the personal/romantic allure that Helena feels) and the frustrations of a person that we want to like, but increasingly wonder if we should. This is character work, storytelling, and use of POV at its absolutely best.
As I’m writing this I’m realizing I might be painting this book as a talky piece of philosophical fiction. While these philosophical quandries are built into the book, don’t fret. This book is packed with action battle sequences. Have you ever read a trilogy that seems to be building up to some final showdown and then you were left…dissapointed? That doesn’t happen here. The final showdowns are big, bold, and epic.
Not only are these final battles worthy of a series ender, but they are viscerally chilling. This book contains more horrifying imagery, demons, and blood than most books advertised as being horror. Swan knows his way around a description, giving us just enough spine-tingline images to convey the through horrors of what his characters are going up against. There is one particular part with a cloaca that made me put down the book for a second….and once you get there you’ll know what I’m talking about.
These battle sequences are thrilling and chaotic, but they never lose the core of what this series is about. The characters always shine through as they are tasked with making the tough choices. Who knew that a small little fantasy book about a Judge could become this epic and this interesting?
I know that this review is shorter than the reviews I normally write. It is hard to convey how much I absolutely loved this book, and how much it made Richard Swan an auto-buy author for me. This book is exhilirating, terrifying, emotionally gut-wrenching, and epic in more ways than I could have ever asked for in this series. If you’ve read the first two books, don’t wait to pick this one up. If you haven’t yet started the Empire of the Wolf series, this is your signal to jump in knowing that the series only gets better and better, and Swan absolutely nails the landing.
Oh, and don’t worry – there is a major trial scene in this book that gets us back to those dark “Law and Order” vibes from the original.
Concluding Thoughts: In one of the best series enders I have ever read, Richard Swan ups the ante in terms of both the action and the themes as Helena, Vonvolt, and company approach their final threat. What started as as fantasy law and order has transformed over three books into a demon-infested fantasy thriller that questions the very foundation of justice. Viscerally haunting and ethically ambiguous, Swan will challenge both the limits of your imagination and your ethics as Helena and Vonvolt are thrust into harder and harder situations. Vonvolt is now one of my favorite all time characters. You can either continue or start this trilogy knowing the payoff is immense.