Richard Swan‘s THE JUSTICE OF KINGS turned out to be one of the best fantasy books I’ve read in a long time. It scratched an itch I’d been missing in the speculative fiction I’ve read recently that I wasn’t quite sure I’d realized was missing, and (at the risk of disparaging other books by talking about why this is so good) that thing is (in part) that he wrote an epic book, threw me into the world, and trusted I’d have the interest and ability to swim.
Maybe it’s a holdover from a childhood in the local Harry W. Schwartz’s bookstore, grabbing random titles off the shelf and losing myself in wondering what the places on the maps at the front of the books could be, maybe it’s all downstream of the map at the front of the The Hobbit that I could flip back to to follow the journey, but there is something intoxicating about a book that gives us a window into a world far larger than the boundaries set by its covers. THE JUSTICE OF KINGS does just that. There’s a steep learning curve, plenty of proper names and places and long-standing conflicts that are second nature to the characters but foreign to me appear in the first chapter. I can imagine writing this book and being concerned that an agent or editor (or reader) might bounce off of that learning curve.
But, I submit to you that it’s worth the climb.
Beyond generally being “fun, tense, eldritch dark epic fantasy with an almost Holmes/Watson mystery setup” the specifics of the world are worth noting because they inform what I think are the most impactful themes that lend this book a weight and cultural resonance. Our narrator is the law clerk to Justice Vonvalt who is a kind of wandering sheriff/judge empowered with the authority of enforcing the civil law of an expansionist empire. Co-incident with this civil law is a strain of inescapable religiosity. The imperial religion is transparently constructed (we learn in the first handful of pages that it absorbed a traditional cultic practice, lightly reskinned it, and folded it directly into its religious canon) as well as simultaneously loosely held by many while also zealously adhered to by few.
That set up… erm… reminds me of a place (note, I believe Swan is British and living in Australia, and I’m unfamiliar with those two places so I’m not sure if whether what I’m seeing is merely my personal American projection onto a mere coincidence, if this comparison applies to either the UK or Australia in a similar way as it does to the US, or if it was an intentional secondary world conflict built without any reference to the real world, but it worked for me).
This conflict between secular (or loosely believed and shallowly performed religiosity) and zealous faith exposes the fault lines in the imperial system, and asks a handful of questions:
What happens when laws or conventions are simply… ignored? Pompey Magnus suggested an answer a long time ago and given events of the last decade or so it seems a particularly relevant question.
How resilient must a system be to prevent a hyper-motivated few from exploiting the system itself when they have the objective of shattering it? Again, relevant.
When a political system based upon secular law that is applicable to everyone (a very capital L liberal ideal) is pitted against religious/theocratic political system in a secular-is-progressive-second-is-regressive conflict, what does it take to prevent the moral arc of the universe from bending *away* from justice? Again (and horrifyingly) relevant!
And lastly, in a reference to Nietzsche that overly motivated early phil majors are wont to use, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” Or, tailored to this book, what does it take for a man who fights to uphold justice to succumb to unjust tactics? Is it worth doing so? When, and at what cost?
Anyway, this is all to say that I think great fiction has something to say and even more asks questions of the reader *over and above* kicking ass and being entertaining. THE JUSTICE OF KINGS is both, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Besides, it also uses the word “consequentialist” in its technical ethical meaning, which is very niche content that appeals to a vein of nerdy that I just don’t see enough.
Buy it from your local independent bookstore, Seattle if you must, or Bookshop.org