"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 prot?,? 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?"--Dust jacket flap.
When a Lord’s wife in a small city is murdered, Sir Konrad must investigate. What he hopes will be a quick investigation turns far more complicated and unearths a far-reaching conspiracy that will challenge all of Sir Konrads not inconsiderable abilities and beliefs. With constantly increasing stakes, can they protect the empire and still uphold the law? Or must they abandon their principles?
Wow does Richard Swan make some amazing choices with this story! It’s almost a nested narrative as he tells the story of Sir Konrad, but tells it through the eyes of his clerk and talented young protege, Helena. The story is being told from a future point in time so benefits from interpreting the events with the advantage of wisdom and perspective. Swan begins the story by showing Konrad going about his job, traveling a circuit around the empire, resolving disputes, and rendering judgment. You absorb the history of the Empire and how it deals with the challenges of consolidating its gains in the background of the present actions. He demonstrates the importance of the common law and Sir Konrad’s admirable adherence to fairness while also demonstrating compassion and understanding for the cultures of those absorbed into the Empire.
Helena is brilliant in her own right, but young and inexperienced, Her relationship with sir Konrad, her mentor and the one who rescued her from a meager existence is well-handled. She is torn by her loyalty and respect for Konrad but has doubts about whether his life is what she wants for herself. Other characters are not only well-drawn but grow and develop over the course of the novel, especially the town sheriff, Sir Radomir. The mystery is engrossing, the stakes ever-increasing, and the action is superb. Great world-building and fascinating characters make this one of the best books in recent memory and a fantastic start to a new series. I can’t wait for the next book!
I was provided a copy of this book by the publisher.
Vonvalt is accompanied in such travels by his guard/factotum Bressinger and by his clerk (and potential judge in training) Helena, and the tale is indeed told through a much older Helena’s memoirs. As the story starts, Vonvalt and his small retinue are trying to shed some light on the murder of a noblewoman, and in the course of the investigation discover that the case is tied to a far-reaching chain of events that might lead to the unraveling of the empire’s fabric, and to the very end of the Imperial Justice system.
I appreciated the choice of having Helena as a chronicler, because the wisdom (and some disillusionment) of the older woman help put the account into perspective and turn her into a quite reliable narrator, observing the facts - and her own past self - through the lens of experience. The three main characters form an interesting team: Sir Konrad is a serious, and at times moody, individual but he also possesses an inner core of conviction and respect for the law that he tries to transmit to Helena, whom he clearly envisions as his successor; his usual sternness does not always manage to cover a fatherly attitude that at times comes through but is almost never perceived as such by the younger woman, so that the sometimes strained relationship between the two of them often reminded me of Merela and Girton in the Wounded Kingdom saga. Bressinger, on the other hand, represents a more approachable adult for Helena, and despite his gruff, world-weary approach and his shifting moods, he’s the one she feels more inclined to confide in.
Helena herself is what you might call a survivor: orphaned by one of the many wars of annexation that gave birth to the Sovan empire, she learned at a very tender age to fend for herself, and was rescued by Sir Konrad who saw the promise in the young woman and decided to give her a chance for a better future. The Helena described in the story is a mixture of innocence and strength, determination and uncertainty: it’s clear that her childhood left her somewhat emotionally stunted, and she does not know yet what she wants to do with her life - following in Sir Konrad’s footsteps would certainly give her the status and security she did not have in her early life, but Helena is not sure that this is what she truly wants, and she’s often chafing at the restraints that her present role is imposing on her.
These interesting character dynamics take place in an equally interesting background: the Sovan empire is the result of some bloody wars - Sir Konrad himself did fight in one - and the judicial system put in place by the emperor is viewed as the glue that should hold it all together, which is the reason Vonvalt is always so meticulous in weighing all the aspects of his profession and authority, careful that the meting out of justice never turns into mere vengeance or an expression of unchecked power. And that’s where the unrest running throughout the empire stands: a struggle is brewing between the religious and secular powers, hinted at for the first time through the opposing views of Sir Konrad and the priest Claver over the behavior of some villagers, which the former chooses to simply reprimand while the latter would like to kill as an example to the rest of the world. The clash between Vonvalt’s concept of justice and Claver’s excess of zeal looks like the spark that might ignite the empire - and in truth we understand this is more than a possibility thanks to the opening sentence of the novel, in which the events at the small village where the two men battle are foreshadowed as the spark for the coming upheaval.
But such a spark must find a consistent amount of kindling to start the proverbial fire, and that comes to light in the course of Sir Konrad’s investigation, which proves to be the microcosm of what is brewing in the empire: the murder mystery (which is an intriguing addition to the fantasy setting) allows the readers to get a close-up view of Sovan society in the merchant town of Galen’s Vale, with its intricate political ties and the buried secrets of a small community which - as so often happens in such investigations, no matter the time frame in which they happen - come unraveled as Sir Konrad leaves no stone unturned in his search for truth and for the murderer.
The murder inquiry also offers the chance for the introduction of the only “magical” elements present in the story: Justices like Vonvalt are empowered by special skills, like the Emperor’s Voice, which compels anyone subjected to it to speak the truth, no matter what; and then there is the much darker element of necromancy, the ability to connect to a recently dead individual to learn either the details of their deaths or the secrets they carried to the grave. This latter skill is disturbing - in one occasion Helena participates in the ritual and is grievously affected by it - and also taxing for the individual performing it, introducing a welcome limitation to what might otherwise have been a deus-ex-machina narrative device: the concept here is that such powers must be used sparingly and only in the direst of circumstances, both to prevent the tainting of one’s soul and the corruption of one’s skills in pursuing truth and justice.
In the end, The Justice of Kings proved to be a compelling story of a world in the early throes of disruption, and if sometimes the pace falters between the detail-rich murder investigation and the echoes of developing unrest, the narrative remains consistently fascinating and the characters worthy of further exploration. Given this premise, I more than look forward to the next installment in the series.