A long time ago, back before I wrote for GeekDad, I thought I’d try to write a book. Turns out it’s really hard. Had I written that book it would have been set in a classic “Old World” European fantasy setting, featuring an empire where religion and superstition held sway. The Justice of Kings by Richard Swann has a similar premise. Not only did Swann actually finish and publish his novel, but he also wrote one that was better than mine ever would have been. The Justice of Kings is an excellent modern fantasy with tight plotting, memorable characters, and utterly convincing world-building.
What Is The Justice of Kings?
Justice of Kings is narrated by the apprentice of a King’s Justice. A King’s Justice travels around the Empire, tracking down criminals, hearing evidence, passing judgment, and delivering sentences. Justices’ can be brutal but are not always so. The entire story of Justice of Kings takes root because of Justice Konrad Vonvalt’s leniency. Instead of executing the “heretics,” he admonishes them and asks the village to desist from carrying its old practices. Disgusted, a young firebrand priest leaves the judicial retinue, unable to countenance such kindness. His flight triggers a series of events that will have deep ramifications for the stability of the Empire. Ramifications that will go well beyond this first volume.
Our narrator is Helena, the Justice’s scribe. She is describing these events late in her life. How reliable a narrator she is we are not sure, but we know she has seen much in her life, beginning with heresy in a provincial town.
An Emperor’s Justice is part Poirot and part witch hunter, with a side of necromancy for good measure. The first half of the book reads like a whodunnit, with Helena and Konrad piecing together evidence to solve domestic and civic disputes. Partway through the novel, however, they become embroiled in a more complicated plot, with tentacles that spread wide. This leads to Helena going undercover as they try to get to the bottom of a plot that goes to the heart of the Empire.
Why Read The Justice of Kings?
The pacing of Justice of Kings is pitch-perfect. The opening half, where we learn about Helena and Konrad’s relationship and how the Empire’s judicial system works, is fascinating. The world-building is excellent, and the characterization is formidable. The incidental characters are great too. They’re mirrors in which we see reflected the weakness and prejudices of Vonvalt and the Imperial Justice system.
The necromancy in this book is truly creepy. Not gratuitous or gory, but unsettling. It’s a far cry from the usual magical pyrotechnics one might see in a fantasy novel, and is all the more compelling for it.
I loved The Justice of Kings from start or finish and immediately pre-ordered the second book for when it comes out in paperback. Traditionally, in my reading, I like the heroic tales of Tolkien, Eddings, and Terry Brooks—the books I loved as a teenager. The places my love of fantasy was born. The world has moved on from there. Modern fantasy is more nuanced with deeper shades of grey. My naturally optimistic nature, however, and the books of my youth, mean that I don’t particularly like grimdark novels. I often find them unrelentingly gloomy. Bleak and violent for little good reason.
The Justice of Kings falls in the middle. It has tough people trying to do right but not always succeeding, similar to Peter Maclean’s War for the Rose Throne books. It is grim, it is dark, but it’s also realistic and character choices matter. They make decisions that make us want them to succeed. Whilst it is something of a cliché, the novel’s feudal-medieval Europe setting is well-drawn. You’ve read about places like this before, but Swann makes his world stand out. Its people and politics are interesting.
I particularly enjoyed the part religion plays in the book. The genesis, history, and power of religion fascinate me. The way it shapes nations and continents is terrifying and fascinating in equal measure. In the book that I was trying to write, I wanted to examine the interplay between religion and magic as well as the importance of religion to a superstitious feudal population. Richard Swann has done exactly this, about a million times better than I ever could have managed.
The plotting in The Justice of Kings is first-rate. I tore through the book desperate to find out what was going on. The small-scale stories are engrossing, but when the lens pulls back and we see the larger picture the results are electric. Book two should be landing on my doormat sometime in July, and I can’t wait to see where things go next.
If you would like to pick up a copy of The Justice of Kings you can do so here in the US and here in the UK. (Affiliate Links)
If you enjoyed this review, check out my other book reviews.