By: Richard Swan
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Publisher: Orbit Books
The Justice of Kings, by Richard Swan, is an epic fantasy that is a cross between Law and Order meets Aragorn. This brilliant debut fantasy novel is a non-stop, action-packed novel filled with law, meting out of justice, and battle scenes that rival the best in fantasy. Konrad Vonvalt, one of the main protagonists, is an Imperial Justice. The complexity of Vonvalt is nothing short of astounding and he is sure to go down as one of the best characters in the fantasy genre. While has the power to be investigator, judge, and executioner, it’s not quite that simple. His complexity is seen through the eyes of the narrator, Helena Sedanka, who is both his clerk and protégé. They travel the Sovan Empire, also known as Empire of the Wolf, assuring that towns and cities, even in remote areas of the Empire, are following the law. Accompanying them are Dubine Bressigner, friend and taskman to Vonvalt, and, for a time the fanatical, pious priest, Claver. The Justice of Kings has all the fantasy elements; world building, well-developed characters, and highly unique magic. Where it departs from the genre is in Vonvalt himself and the magic that is used, only wielded by the Empire’s Justices. It deviates from typical fantasy justice, where the accused is assumed to be guilty, and it’s “off with your head.” As a war veteran, Vonvalt is capable of fighting, and he does it very well when necessary. Back to my original comparison, Konrad Vonvalt is a lawyer and investigator, but when pushed, he will use his expertise that he gained as a soldier. For the Empire, as Aragorn said, “you have my sword,” and Vonvalt can certainly live up to that comparison. To say that I loved this book would be an understatement, and to know this is a debut fantasy novel by Mr. Swan, who has written science fiction, makes it even more impressive.
Konrad Vonvolt’s name carries with it immense respect, as he is the most powerful of the Emperor’s Justices. With his position, as with all justices, he has the use of magic, magic that varies with each. Vonvalt has two, the Emporer’s voice, which compels people to tell the truth, and necromancy. It is the latter that disturbs Helena, and she is present only once when he does it, as it can be dangerous. I found this magic system to be unique not only in terms of the power he wields, but that each justice is different. We see through Helena that Vonvolt is man of singular focus, making sure that justice is carried out fairly. Vonvolt is neither cruel or unjust. Quite the opposite. He measures justice fairly, and the punishment fits the crime. Vonvalt sees no reason for serious punishment for minor infractions. However, one of the main lines in the story comes as they travel to the city of Galen’s Vale, where there has been a murder of a woman of nobility. Here we see the investigative side of Vonvalt, unwilling to leave until the mystery is solved and justice is served. Helena records all that happens, as well learns from Vonvalt. Bressinger, whom served in the war with Vonvalt that brought about the Empire, assists. I felt his capacity was that of a bodyguard as well. He is protective of Helena, and vows that nothing will ever happen to her. With his service in the war, Vonvalt is also deft with a sword and will use it in his capacity. It is his sense of justice and duty that can cloud his vision at times. While another Justice, August, comes to see him to tell him the Empire is in danger and he must return, his answer is as soon as this murder is solved, much to her dismay. Vonvalt will simply not abandon what he feels is right.
Being married to a lawyer, reading that Mr. Swan was also a litigator, the justice system in this novel was absolutely fascinating for me. As he investigates the murder, he questions suspects, tries to piece together the puzzle of the crime, and does use necromancy when it is needed. The investigation is like an onion, as the layers are peeled back, it reveals a deep-rooted problem within the Empire. A first for me in an epic fantasy such as this involved a trial. A real trial with opening statements from Vonvalt and the defendant’s attorneys. Knowing our own justice system, this was, for me, a very interesting and accurate portrayal, and further illustrates the fairness of Vonvalt.
I felt it was a brilliant choice to have Helena as the narrator of the story. We know who Vonvalt is as seen through her eyes. There are so many facets to this choice. Helena respects and truly likes Vonvalt. Helena was an orphan after the war, and he saw her potential and made her his clerk. What I thought was also a great choice was not to dwell on her time as an orphan. It is mentioned, we know where she came from, but we don’t get the details of how she lived. It’s up to the reader to surmise her time as an orphan growing up on the streets of a city. The orphan living on the streets is a story in fantasy that has been done many times, successfully I should add, but it is not part of this story. Knowing how she came to be his clerk is all the information we need. While he is kind and teaches her, he is not “warm and fuzzy.” He does not show emotion of that type, but she does see his anger and actions when he feels that unjust actions have happened. In these moments, she sees a very different side of him, one that makes her question her role. As he we see his arc throughout the story moving in a surprising direction, it can be said that Helena’s arc is running counter to his. Konrad Vonvalt is man of honor and justice, but what does it take for a man to question his own ideals?
The pacing and prose were excellent. The narrative flowed smoothly, as the story unfolds with Helena’s narrative. It was very exciting to see so many different aspects written into a fantasy novel that I felt were new, and added diverse characteristics into the genre. Helena knows she is lucky that Vonvalt chose her as his clerk. It was an opportunity she could not pass up. Here again, there are several things that I enjoyed immensely about the prose. Helena, while respecting and learning from Vonvalt, is not totally in awe of him. We see through the narrative how twists and turns make her realize he is not the stoic Justice. Vonvalt and Bressinger are older. In so many fantasies, the protagonists are very young, most in their twenties or rarely in their thirties. They are both seasoned veterans of war, a time that brings both experience and wisdom. Helena knows this, but still wonders if this role she has been given is right. Once again, Vonvalt’s fairness is seen as he does tell Helena that she is welcome to settle down in any of the places they visit. There are battle scenes that are gritty and real, and here we see the war veterans use the skills they have, as Galen’s Vale is attacked. It is quite brutal in many ways, but it was so incredibly real and well done. There are twists and turns in The Justice of Kings that I never saw coming. The layers are woven together with beautiful narrative, all wrapping up seamlessly, leaving us on a cliffhanger ending.
The Justice of Kings is, quite simply, a brilliant and masterful epic fantasy. With the incredible creation of the character of Konrad Vonvalt, Mr. Swan has catapulted himself into the best of fantasy writers. This character is on par with those I have read in Robin Hobb, Joe Abercrombie, and Brandon Sanderson. Vonvalt’s complexity lies in his absolute adherence to justice, his fairness, and his eventual realization that perhaps there is more than one type of justice. The narrative of Helena Sendanka was a perfect choice. For the reader, we can still form our own opinion of Vonvalt, even though we only see him through her eyes, and how she feels about him. A third person narrative tells us who the characters are, what they believe, and what they stand for. We can like or dislike them based on what we read. However, in the first-person narrative of Helena, we only see her version of his actions, which are skewed. We can better form our own opinions on what he does, and if it is right or wrong, because we know that there is more to this man than what one person thinks. We don’t have to agree with Helena. The justice system was excellent, mirroring our own, which was fascinating to read in a fantasy novel. I love the uniqueness and individuality of the magic system of each justice. From the first page, I knew this novel was going to be excellent. It was one I couldn’t put down. The Justice of Kings has become one of my favorite fantasy novels. Mr. Swan’s debut fantasy novel did more than hit the bullseye. It went right through the target. I look forward to the next installment.
Summary (from NetGalley)
The Empire of the Wolf simmers with unrest. Rebels, heretics, and powerful patricians all challenge the power of the Imperial throne.
Only the Order of Justices stands in the way of chaos. Sir Konrad Vonvalt is the most feared Justice of all, upholding the law by way of his sharp mind, arcane powers, and skill as a swordsman. At his side stands Helena Sedanka, his talented protégé, orphaned by the wars that forged the Empire.
When the pair investigates the murder of a provincial aristocrat, they unearth a conspiracy that stretches to the very top of Imperial society. As the stakes rise and become ever more personal, Vonvalt and Helena must make a choice: Will they abandon the laws they’ve sworn to uphold, in order to protect the Empire?
My thanks to NetGalley and Orbit Books for providing me with an eBook ARC in return for an honest review.