PoV: First-person, past-tense
The Justice of Kings, the first in a new epic fantasy trilogy, follows the tale of Sir Konrad Vonvalt, an Emperor’s Justice – a detective, judge and executioner all in one. As he unravels a web of secrets and lies, Vonvalt discovers a plot that might destroy his order once and for all – and bring down the entire Empire.
As an Emperor's Justice, Sir Konrad Vonvalt always has the last word. His duty is to uphold the law of the empire using whatever tools he has at his disposal: whether it's his blade, the arcane secrets passed down from Justice to Justice, or his wealth of knowledge of the laws of the empire. But usually his reputation as one of the most revered—and hated—Justices is enough to get most any job done.
When Vonvalt investigates the murder of a noblewoman, he finds his authority being challenged like never before. As the simple case becomes more complex and convoluted, he begins to pull at the threads that unravel a conspiracy that could see an end to all Justices, and a beginning to lawless chaos across the empire.
~what if the law actually mattered in a Fantasy setting?
~LEAVE THE FOXES ALONE
~fanatics of all stripes are Very Bad
~undercover in a convent
~the afterlife is pretty scary actually
The Justice of Kings barely made it onto my radar when it was released – books about ablebodied, neurotypical cishet white dudes with swords being Grim and Extremely Sirrus are not books I tend to care about – but after seeing it appear on one Best of 2022 list after another – from readers and bloggers and vloggers I like and respect, at that – I thought I’d give it a try. I wanted to know what everyone was raving about!
Reader, I have read the book, and I still don’t know what everyone was raving about.
Several bits of the worldbuilding are genuinely interesting, and Swan’s writing is extremely readable – it’s weirdly easy to find yourself turning pages, and then more pages, and suddenly you’ve finished another chapter almost without noticing.
So it’s not bad. Technically. From a technical perspective.
It’s just that there’s…literally nothing great about it, either.
Is the concept of travelling judges who make sure the law applies equally to everyone excellent? Yes, yes it is. I think it’s also a pretty unique concept in this sort of setting, particularly; Fantasy often embraces monarchies and emperors and overlooks how political systems featuring them are usually very bad for the common people, so it’s nice to see a Fantasy empire that is Extremely Serious about making everyone equal under the law. (More or less.) And I thought the magical powers that these judges have – the Emperor’s Voice, which can compel a person to speak or act, being the main one – were pretty neat too.
But while this is a really great concept, the execution was, imo, incredibly lackluster. This book is fucking boring. All the things I liked, or liked the idea of – the Justices, the implications of the necromancy, Political Shenanigans, a main character who used to be an orphan street-rat – were either minimised, had the cool parts sanded off, or diluted the cool parts with sooooooooo much plot-I-simply-did-not-care-about.
(As opposed to, you know, good-and-interesting plot. Of which there was…virtually none.)
A lot of the things I disliked about The Justice of Kings are entirely subjective; I’m bored as fuck with settings inspired by Medieval Western Europe; I almost never enjoy first-person narration; and I don’t like my Fantasy ugly with shit and gore. Those are all matters of taste, they don’t make a book good or bad.
But plenty of my problems with this book aren’t really a question of taste, they’re just facts: there is not one single character who is actually interesting (or likeable, but characters being likeable is far less important than them being interesting). The main character is whiny and bizarrely naive/ignorant about the world for someone who lived on the streets as a child. The book is written from the perspective of her future self, writing down past events, and the narrator freely admits, even points out, that her younger self is annoying, impulsive, makes bad decisions, etc. Unfortunately, that doesn’t actually get around the fact that she is annoying, impulsive, and makes bad decisions. The fact that the narrator/author is aware of this doesn’t make it less unpleasant to read, you know? And Vonvalt, despite being a Justice, a noble, a brilliant swordsman, and a freaking necromancer, reads like my GSCE Physics teacher whose voice used to put me to sleep in class.
(Vonvalt points out, and I agree, that most of what a lawperson does is dull munitae. Yes! Yes it is! That’s okay! I have no problem with that! I don’t need you to be a Super Exciting Unrealistic Lawperson! But don’t just tell us (repeatedly) that Vonvalt is passionate about the law, and about seeing that everyone is treated equally under it. Fucking show us. And yet, not once did I really feel, or even believe in, that passion. ARGH.)
In fact, can we talk about the narration? The narrator is constantly just flat-out telling us things. Telling-telling-telling, instead of showing. I am not one of those people who think you’ve never allowed tell – of course you are. But I got really sick of being told all the things I should know and believe about this world and these characters and this case and blah blah blah whatever, instead of being shown it. Instead of getting to feel it for myself.
Overall, actually, Justice of Kings was pretty terrible at making me feel any emotion at all but impatience for the book to get on with it (or better yet, be over). I didn’t feel worried when the characters were allegedly in danger; I wasn’t curious about the investigation or any of the other questions that came up over the course of the book. I was never delighted, I never felt wonder, I was never outraged by the villains. I never even felt shocked, even when Obviously Meant To Be Shocking things happened.
No, wait, that’s a lie: I did feel something. Grossed out, by the battle scenes. But that’s a personal taste thing again.
Then we have the delightful fatphobia running rampant. The vast majority of the villains are fat or, occasionally, ‘portly’. Hi, can this trope die in a fire already?
Where the fuck are all the women??? Why are we presented with exactly two (2) women of relevance: the main character, who is useless, and a female Justice, whose concerns are brushed off by the men around her and who is considered so ‘eccentric’ she can’t take those concerns to their Order herself, but needs a man to do it? View Spoiler » And why the fuck does she die? You gave us literally two women, and you killed one of them??? Urgh. Worse, she’s not just killed, she’s fridged, as the narrator literally says her death changes Vonvalt and sets him down a fucked-up path. Hi, this can die in a fire also. « Hide Spoiler
(I’m not even going to touch ‘where are all the not-white and/or not-cishet people?’ because this is so very clearly White Straight DudeTM Fantasy that I honestly want to go back in time just to slap my past self for even considering picking up this book.)
Why is all the interesting plot happening off-page? This is a problem I see with firsts-in-series sometimes; the first book becomes all about set-up for the Real Story, and thus isn’t that impressive by itself. Justice of Kings is mainly focussed on a single murder case, the investigation therein and the conspiracy that is thereby revealed – and none of it was interesting. Meanwhile, we are dropped tidbits about the political situation in the capital, the rise in religious fanaticism, the origins of and battle over the magics of the Justices, and the verifiable existence of a) an afterlife and b) supernatural beings that for the sake of convenience we will call gods. ALL OF THAT IS VERY INTERESTING INDEED – and we barely get to see any of it! Just tiny glimpses or blink-and-miss them mentions in passing. This is a genuine writing-fail.
Oh, there was also the whole worldbuilding/cultural fail. See – this isn’t really a spoiler – there is a scene where Vonvalt performs necromancy. And our main character Helena witnesses it. And she completely and utterly freaks the fuck out.
Despite making it clear that the general population is uneasy with the idea of necromancy, Justice of Kings never explains why that is. We’re just supposed to nod along and agree that talking to the dead isn’t just creepy, it’s enough to make you scream-sob-vomit because it’s sooo viscerally horrifying. And, uh.
No? Not really? Like, context matters a lot here: the corpse of someone who died in a fire – seeing that corpse speak would probably be pretty horrifying. If a corpse were in pieces, if its guts/assorted other organs were spilling out of it, if we just had a decapitated head speaking – I get why those scenarios would hit most people in their NOPE place.
But in this scene? It’s a dude who was alive a few minutes ago, who died of a sword thrust. And now he’s talking. I can see that being unnerving, even shocking, but visually, what is there to be horrified by? Why is it so scary? And if the horror is not coming from the visuals, well – the book completely failed to mention where else it might be coming from. So Helena’s fear, and her fear-reactions? Come across as completely hysterical and ridiculous, not something I can understand, never mind empathise with. The whole thing was nonsensical.
(Legit scary stuff happens later in that scene. But the mouth of a dead guy moving and making words is not it.)
So – where is the cultural reasoning for this kind of fear? It’s not been worked into the worldbuilding. It’s not established. Everyone knows that (some) Justices can do this. Before they did, it was priests who could do it. So there’s a long long history of it existing, and it existing specifically in the contexts of the holy (when it was priests) and the righteous/legal (the Justices). It’s not a deep dark secret that necromancy exists or anything. Its existence isn’t sprung on Helena out of nowhere. The intense, graphically described fear in that scene doesn’t make sense, and it doesn’t make sense in a way that breaks the worldbuilding.
Finally: despite being very anti-Church myself, Evil Churches/religious fanatics are, at this point, just lazy writing. Come up with a villain I haven’t seen a gazillion times before, would you please? Or at least give the Church/fanatic some new take? Because honestly, everything about the Evil Church Fanatic plotline was unbearably predictable. I saw the Big Shocking Thing coming from light-years away – and it’s a running joke that I never see the twists/reveals coming. If I can predict what your story’s going to do, it is a very damning indictment indeed.
In conclusion: I have no idea why so many readers are so in love with this. I have no idea why the sequel has made the Most Anticipated lists of almost all the blogs and vloggers I follow. The concept of the Justices is pretty cool, I really would like to know more about the reality of the afterlife, but I’m pissed I wasted so many hours of my life reading this extremely Meh book. There is approximately 0% chance of my reading any more of this series.
That’ll teach me for picking something up just because it’s popular.