Review – The Justice of Kings (Empire of the Wolf #1), by Richard Swan

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 won’t 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

Review – Wake of War, by Zac Topping

WAKE OF WAR is a near future novel about a civil war raging in the American West, Utah to be specific. It’s not so much about why the country fractured, or even really the effort to knit the fracture back together (or drive it further apart, depending on point of view) and more about how the people who fight the war enter a crucible of irrevocable personal change. This isn’t about Churchill inspiring a nation under siege, or even about the clash of Patton and Rommel, field commanders wiling to breathe diesel fumes and get dirty in a war with the hands on movement of units across a theater. No, WAKE OF WAR is about ordinary soldiers, rifle in hand, and how the war puts them into a crucible and leaves them behind, irrevocably altered by the experience.

We follow a young American soldier, James Trent, who enlisted in the Army seeking the advantages afforded to veterans when he completes his service period and returns to civilian life. Trent was no true believer, but rather simply someone who saw the Army as a means to further his life’s ambitions. Yet, he finds himself thrust into the front lines of an anti-insurgency in all the grim and brutal details that entails. We’re given a window into his journey as he gradually loses the touchpoints of the society he left behind and is ostensibly fighting to protect, until by the close of the book the young man is something cynical, damaged, someone who comes to see his old life as something distant and foreign. The life he envisioned for him before his combat experience comes to be something foreign, his hopes and aspirations twisted and changed so that to whatever extent he emerges “victorious,” doing so comes at a personal cost that is visceral to experience as a reader. In a way, he’s a symbol of how the trauma of war changes those who fight it.

Trent’s experiences are juxtaposed against a rebel sniper, Sam Cross, who is a young woman who fights with the insurgency and does so for her own reasons. She enters the story as an avenging angel, a sniper who will earn the moniker “Reaper.” Where Trent fought because the needs of the Army dictated he fight, Cross fought because she believed in the cause. Yet, much as the war changed Trent, the fighting does the same to Cross. Regardless of why you enter the crucible, the heat of combat changes you just the same.

Lastly, the book provides us with the perspective of a grizzled mercenary, Markus. Unlike Trent or Cross, Markus has chosen war as his trade. He and his company have been in one war or another for ages. But even for someone like Markus, war has a way of reaching out and making itself felt.

Nobody, it seems, is immune from being affected by the wake that war leaves in its passing.

Ultimately WAKE OF WAR is a pulse-pounding novel. It’s short, punchy, and relentless. There’s more than just gunfire and military trappings. It’s captures the souls of its characters and gives you a front row seat to how those souls bear the trauma of combat. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Buy it from the Seattle store,


or your local bookstore.

Review – Lone Women, by Victor Lavelle

LONE WOMEN by Victor Lavalle, is an incisive examination of family, the boundaries of self-reliance, the American frontier ethos, justice, and guilt. It’s inescapably dark, with elusive elements of horror that run the gamut from ghosts and hauntings to cryptids and demons made flesh, and yet, as is always the case, perhaps it is the people who are the most terrifying all along.

Adelaide Henry flees her home in California for the homesteading wilds of Montana, lugging a steamer trunk along on the journey. In Montana, she finds the desolation and isolation of the American frontier in the early 20th century, navigates being black in a landscape that is mostly not, and being a single (lone) woman, as well. Along the way, Adelaide discovers it’s impossible to outrun your past, and indeed the shame and sins you bury will ultimately demand a reckoning, and meets many and more people who learn that lesson as well.

The experience, especially at the beginning of the book, is relentlessly tense. Lavalle grips you by the throat just tight enough to be uncomfortable, and doesn’t let go until the Adelaide starts to feel at ease, when he allows the tension to wane just long enough for things to start going wrong again and the grip to tighten once more. The book is tagged by the publisher as “gothic horror,” and that description is apt for the slow and foreboding tone that is set on the first page.

I received a copy from the publisher, unsolicited, “given [my] appreciation of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s MEXICAN GOTHIC.” I’m quite honestly not sure how or why that popped into my inbox the other day, but it was a welcome way to spend my weekend. LONE WOMEN is set to release on March 21, 2023, so there’s plenty of time for you to line up your preorders.

Seattle Colossus Link link

P.S. As of the time of this writing, the price is lower.

Review – Flames of Mira (The Rift Walker #1), by Clay Harmon

The two things that I’ve seen most frequently mentioned by people reviewing Flames of Mira are the setting and the magic system, and while both merit mention, neither are why you ought to read this book. For all of the gritty, brutal, evocative action, the story is one that explores the nature of how pursuit of ends can lead to justifying the use of fundamentally corrupt means, and more to the point how a person with “no choice” but to be complicit in those fundamentally corrupt means may, in fact, always have a choice (if, of course, that choice comes at a cost that one might not willingly pay). So, while you absolutely will revel in the magic and the action (read on, oh ho, read on) and the setting is a spectacular break from the standard SFF fare, the soul of the book is deeper, and more satisfying, and absolutely worth your time.

Clay Harmon gives us the story of a powerful “elemental,” Ig, who is in the service of the ruler of a city state. In many ways, this story feels in some ways like it would be right at home on the streets of New York City when (at least their Hollywood versions) mafia bosses establish territory and feud for control. But, unlike watching the scions of the Corleone family engaging in power politics from someone on the inside, Flames of Mira gives us Ig, an enforcer whose free will is somewhat uncertain. From Ig’s perspective, we delve into his free will, his complicity with evil, and where a soldier’s breaking point on “just following orders” might lie.

Additionally, we observe and explore the steps that “good” people take on a path as they set out for justice, and like the dark and murky depths of the setting, they don’t see the pitfalls along the way.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the setting. This is no jaunt across the Merry old England of Errol Flynn’s dreams, this is the hardscrabble effort of humanity clinging desperately to life in a world that is Jules Verne’s Voyage to the Center of the Earth crossed with Hieronymus Bosch and Dante Alighieri in the midst of a bad bout of ergot poisoning. The world we explore is a shattered, cavernous, subterranean environment of wildly fluctuating temperature extremes (the surface is frozen, and veins of magma flow everywhere, giving the basis for the tag line “Death by ash, or death by ice”). Bioluminescence, forests of fungi, mammoth and horrifying insects, and more populate a place as hostile to the human characters as any I can recall, and sets the dark tone of the story from the first page.

The magic system is also something that gets positive press for being unique (characters bind to and control elements, as in elements from the periodic table) and which is put to use to clever and interesting uses. But more (and more to my personal preferences), it never feels pedantic or formulaic. Interesting characters push their powers in interesting directions and use it do accomplish fantastic and exciting things. Besides, who doesn’t want to see someone get punched in the face with lava?

Do yourself a favor and don’t sleep on this one.

Buy it from your local indie, or from or from the deathstar in Seattle.

Review – Garden of Empire (Pact and Pattern #2), by J.T. Greathouse

One of my favorite things about fantasy series is seeing Book 1 promise a world far larger than what we see between its covers–hint at and tease mysteries and powers and depths and complexities that you as the reader absolutely know are out there if only the author would show us–and then for Book 2 to deliver on that promise. J.T. Greathouse pulls this feat off in Pact and Pattern, and then some.

The rich fantasy empire set up in THE HAND OF THE SUN KING is widened, but more importantly, our view of it changes. Unlike the first book, in GARDEN OF EMPIRE, we get more points of view than simply Alder/Foolish Cur’s. For a book that is inherently about empire and the colonized/conquered populations of empire struggling for place within a system that both exploits and erases them, this perspective shift is incredibly valuable, and incredibly rewarding.

The fantasy itself, the adventure of learning the mysteries of a magic system and cosmology far more intricate than it appears on the surface, pays off as well. By the end of Book 2, we not only see Alder/Foolish Cur’s continuing walk along the pathway he began to trod in Book 1 (with both predictable and unpredictable complications that are just <chef’s kiss>), we are treated to the reverberations of the struggle within the empire as they ripple through so many people we learned about in Book 1 and new people as well.

The story is developed with a wonderful complexity, and as always the prose is luscious. J.T. Greathouse is one of the most effective prose artists that I’ve read in SFF in a long time. He threads the needle between rich, complex, and vivid prose without making the effort seem like an exercise in indulging oneself for the purpose of looking good in an MFA salon. His prose is *readable* and gorgeous all at once, and perhaps it’s the former execution of the latter that’s most impressive.

Do yourself a favor and do not miss this one. Or use this as the impulse to read THE HAND OF THE SUN KING, and absolutely keep J.T. Greathouse on your radar as his career continues.

Buy it from your local indie, or,

or the Seattle colossus