The Justice Of Kings, the first book of Richard Swan’s Empire of the Wolf, is a bit of an ugly duckling situation. The start of the book is weird, different, and I initially disliked it. However, the more I sat with the story, the more I liked it. Justice is a tale about traveling court judges who go around setting up pop-up courthouses and keeping the law. It is told from the second perspective of a law clerk for a Justice, but she’s not really the main character—the Justice is. All of it is odd and confusing, but by the end, I had done a full 180 degrees and now think the narrative style is strange but a lot of fun…Or maybe it’s an ugly wolfling situation. Whatever, you get the metaphor.
As mentioned above, The Justice Of Kings tells the story of Justice Konrad Vonvalt through the eyes of his clerk Helena. They travel around the Empire of the Wolf visiting major cities dealing with court cases and solving mysteries. Justices are empowered with a variety of abilities, though their proficiency with each varies greatly. Vonvalt in particular has two powers – The Voice of the Emperor, which can force people to obey his commands, and the ability to speak to the recently dead. Using these powers and his position as an arbiter of justice Vonvalt is essentially a mobile police station/courthouse that just travels around dealing with citizens’ bullshit. Throughout all of this, he is accompanied by his clerk Helena (a war orphan he adopted) and his old army buddy who acts as a bodyguard. The story hits the ground at full speed on one of their patrols. Vonvalt is struggling to maintain order in an empire that is undergoing massive political upheaval and Helena is struggling with her perceived obligation to her adoptive father and her extreme dislike for his profession. Then the book undergoes several periodic shifts to new subjects and top— you know what, I will just say it gets pretty complicated very quickly, and I recommend you read it.
The narrative structure of this story is weird and fabulous. Helena starts out with about as much personality as damp toast, and it bleeds into the prose and storytelling of Justice. But, this book is about fundamentally flawed (and intensely relatable) characters undergoing massive growth. As Helena and Vonvalt become less divorced from reality and more affected by their jobs, they start to develop much less sterile personalities. I would equate it to slowly getting better acquainted to a coworker in a place of business until they become actual friends. As more life and personality infuses the character, the narrative changes with it and it is phenomenal. Helena goes from detached pseudo-historian trying to remain neutral to a very human woman trying to not be murdered by current events and punish evildoers while grappling with the effect and purpose of laws. It’s great.
I have seen several other reviewers heavily compare The Justice Of Kings to The Witcher, and I think it is a fair comparison. Like The Witcher, Justice focuses on a small group of people who can’t do much to affect larger conflicts but whose life and actions are deeply tied to larger events anyway. There is also a similar storytelling structure about the protagonists often showing up late to events and just having what recently happened to them explained in massive exposition (which I personally think works for the lawyer vibes of the story). Finally, the book is largely focused on the bond between a powerful and famous older man and his adoptive daughter struggling with her identity. This being said, I do think Justice focuses on different nooks and crannies of these subjects. Fans of The Witcher will dig the atmosphere and style of the book but find tons of new substance to sink their teeth into.
The Justice Of Kings starts slow, but it builds up into a rockslide of a story that will sweep you off your feet. Its morphing narrative voice is a book that rewards a keen eye for detail and will delight readers who enjoy experimentation with perspective. The characters are flawed and loveable, and watching them grow is very rewarding. All in all, the book is a great experience that I highly recommend.
Rating: The Justice Of Kings – 8.5/10
I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. The thoughts on this story are my own.