Much as I was intrigued by the synopsis for this book, what I found in it went well beyond my expectations, offering a fascinatingly different point of view on a medieval-analogue background undergoing far-reaching changes. Sir Konrad Vonvalt is an Emperor’s Justice, a traveling judge performing his circuit throughout his allotted slice of the Sovan empire and acting not only as judge but also as jury and, if required, as executioner whenever crimes are committed.
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.