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The Justice of Kings coverIt’s taken me about a year to get this review written, and I’m not sure why. The Justice of Kings and its sequel, The Tyranny of Faith, are now among my favorite books, ever, and it seems that it should be easy to articulate why. (The third book, The Trials of Empire, is out in February.)

The Justice of Kings is about Vonvalt, an Imperial Justice of the Sovan Empire, and how he loses his idealism when the Empire begins to crumble around him. He’s joined by his bodyguard and comrade Bressinger, and his clerk Helena, a rescued teenage orphan (and the narrator of the story), as they solve a tangled series of murders and accidentally discover a multi-pronged plot to destroy the Empire.

Vonvalt believes himself to be an embodiment of the Sovan code of law. As Helena says, “Vonvalt was a great believer in the Natural Law, the idea that morality and ethics were absolutes irrespective of human-made laws” (p. 397), and, because Vonvalt is an Imperial Justice, he embodies that “Natural Law” absolutely. This is his responsibility and his power, and he clings to it so strongly that it blinds him to the political realities around him.

When Vonvalt gives orders, he is seen to be speaking in the Emperor’s Voice. That is, Vonvalt is a sort of metonymy for the absolute authority of the Emperor. It is overpowering and effective, and creates an aura of fear in its wake. When people see Vonvalt in his Justice’s robes, they know to be afraid. Nevertheless, Vonvalt embodies the law only in his own way, and with his own priorities—although he doesn’t want to believe this. For example, when he visits the small village of Rill at the very start of the book and discovers that all its residents are still practicing their local religion, he lets them off with a minuscule fine and a warning to be more subtle when other Justices come calling. At the very beginning of the novel, then, we immediately see the difference between what Vonvalt thinks he believes and what he actually believes. Because Helena tells the story, not Vonvalt, we can see the fissures between Vonvalt-the-Imperial-Justice and Vonvalt-the-full-person much more easily: Vonvalt is certainly aware that each Justice has their own interpretation of the law, but he can’t accept that he himself, as a single individual, has that much power over the practical meaning of what is supposed to be an objective, universal code.

For Vonvalt, justice needs to exist as an objective, independent entity, beyond the power of any one person or any shift in political power. That way, Vonvalt can go about his work and interpret justice as he sees fit, while still believing that justice is an absolute, irrefutable idea. But the necromantic powers he derives from his role as a Justice also raise complicated questions about what “justice” and “law” actually are. Only Imperial Justices are allowed to learn how this magic works and how to use it. In his case, Vonvalt has legal power over life and death—he can condemn someone to death if he deems it just, and he also has the power to commit terrifying, “unnatural” acts in the service of the law. Interestingly, “unnatural” here seems to mean that necromancy goes against some sort of natural code of law, something that’s more fundamental and somehow more true than the law of any empire, nation, or political body, including the church.

Furthermore, Vonvalt’s necromancy also makes him privy to horrors and truths—or the possibility of truths—to which most people are not. This serves as a sort of grotesque mirror for his position as a Justice: because he understands what the world truly looks like and how it works, he has a sort of moral authority to make decisions and take action that other people don’t have. At the same time, the horror of the afterlife/otherworld terrifies Vonvalt (as it should, as we will learn in the sequel). So Vonvalt has yet another reason to cling to the role of justice in Sova: justice in Sova is reliable, understandable, and it obeys Vonvalt’s decisions. It’s also something larger than he is. Not as large as the cosmic horror of the afterlife and its multitude of terrifying demons, but large enough. He trusts the law, and he trusts the idea of the Imperial Justices, and he trusts that the rest of the world sees this as the obvious truth it is. He has to, because, were he not to, he’d go insane. (And by the end of the book, he begins to do just that.)

But the rest of the world doesn’t agree with him. At first, Vonvalt believes that this means he simply has to continue his work; not everyone is right, after all. But then Vonvalt starts to see that there are problems with Imperial law, and with the code of morality it promotes and enforces, explicitly and implicitly. He obstinately denies how serious these problems are until he’s been pushed past the brink of actual destruction.

At the climax of the novel, Bartholomew Claver, the obnoxious upstart priest who’s been dogging Vonvalt since the beginning of the book, reappears with magic powers near equal to Vonvalt’s, and an army bound to him by fear and awe. He’s joined by the hideously cruel Margrave Westenholtz, who mocked Vonvalt’s power earlier in the novel. The two of them have captured Justice Resi August, a dear friend and former lover of Vonvalt’s. August has been warning Vonvalt about the changing political tides, but Vonvalt has refused to believe her, even though some part of him knows she must be right. After a bitter debate between Vonvalt, Claver, and Westenholtz, Westenholtz slays a fox to which August has psychically connected herself. August immediately loses her mind—and, in another way, so does Vonvalt:

Vonvalt was overwhelmed. He sank to his knees and would do nothing but stroke August’s face with a trembling hand and apologise over and over. It was not just the death of a close friend and former lover; it was what it represented. It was a return to the evil days of the Reichskrieg, when law and order came a distant second to who had the largest army. A time of evil men and dark deeds. (p. 354)

Helena then tells us that “I think he truly believed that he could control Claver and Westenholtz, to eventually try and bring them to justice. Perhaps one of the small rubies to be prised from the situation was that it killed off that naivete in Vonvalt’s mind—but, as I and many others would come to find, it killed off a few other of his better qualities too” (p. 354). There’s no mockery here: Vonvalt is experiencing a tragic, traumatic thing, a world-shattering thing, and this book is about what that’s like, and also asks whether or not it’s inevitable when dealing with questions of “justice” (or anything related to it, such as right and wrong, and the consequences thereof) as meted out by empire.

*

The Justice of Kings is a nuanced portrayal of what it means to carry out justice, as well as a bloody thought experiment about what justice actually means, and how it affects real people. That’s more than enough reason to read it. There’s another reason, too: the way the novel participates in genre and the specific characters it uses to act out genre patterns.

The Justice of Kings is definitively a dark fantasy and a murder mystery, and this mix matters. The story isn’t trying to dodge conventions or surprise the reader for innovation’s sake. It simply is a dark fantasy and a murder mystery at the same time. Vonvalt is a moody-broody necromancer, with a right-hand man (Bressinger) and an apprentice (Helena), who is especially placed to impact his tumultuous (and vaguely premodern-eastern-European) world through sinister means. Vonvalt is also a moody-broody detective, with a right-hand man (Bressinger) and an amanuensis (Helena), faced with a thorny murder mystery, who must solve it even at great cost to himself and the world around him.

I happen to love both of the things that Vonvalt is, but The Justice of Kings also succeeded in making me love Vonvalt himself, in all of his sorcerous-detective specificity. Somehow, even though I know pieces of what he must do and where he must do it, the novel also ensures that it matters that he is the one doing it. If genre is a ritual—a repeated tradition within which we have trappings we expect and enact and interpret, then I think it ought to matter who is taking part. If there’s a detective and a necromancer, a veteran and a bruiser, an apprentice and a budding wizard, how do we know this, who are they within those roles, and what can we get out of watching these specific people put those mantles on and live with that?

In other words, The Justice of Kings is a genre novel that puts the specific into the ritual of genre and sees what happens, assuming that we know what the ritual and its repetitions are, so that we can understand how they change focus because of who enacts them. While I was trying to come up with a way to describe what exactly I mean, I came across a Roger Ebert review of Carl Franklin’s 1992 noir, One False Move, that explains it perfectly. Ebert explains that the film “begins as a crime story and ends as a human story in which everything that happens depends on the personalities of the characters [...] And rarer still to find a story that subtly, insidiously gets us involved much more deeply than at first we realize, until at the end we’re torn by what happens—by what has to happen.”

This is exactly how The Justice of Kings works. Vonvalt, Bressinger, and Helena are in a world that’s defined by the trappings of dark fantasy and murder mysteries, but they react to it as full people. By the end of the book, Vonvalt loses his faith in justice as an absolute system of morality, Bressinger loses an arm, and Helena loses whatever’s left of her childhood. This doesn’t feel like a result of Justice, Magic, Violence, and Power as abstract concepts that act on the characters; instead it’s a consequence of how the characters react to these ideas as distinctive individuals.

Justice and violence, magic and dark fantasy, don’t supplant the rest of the story—if they did, the novel would just be a cookie-cutter necromancy/murder mystery affair. But these concepts are also just as important as anything else in the story. They’re the conditions under which everything happens and everyone must live—and when Vonvalt, Helena, and Bressinger push against them, they morph and distort and even betray.

The result is a story in which these big concepts feel as distinctive and malleable as the characters. The Justice of Kings isn’t interested in asking whether or not any of these concepts exist. The idea isn’t that the world is utterly devoid of meaning, or that these concepts are worthless. Rather, the book explores all the things these concepts can mean, and how they structure a framework that people must live in. This works so well because the actual characters, the people, are nuanced and specific themselves. Their choices actually mean something about who they are, so we can in turn think about how the story affects them. The Justice of Kings is a nuanced and specific story within its chosen subgenres (low/dark fantasy, overthrow of an empire, murder mystery); the story isn’t about the particular strictures of the plot and its political machinations, however, but about who, specifically, experiences them, makes them, and is brought down by them.

The people of The Justice of Kings are real—difficult, frustrating, lovable, and full. Genre doesn’t make their choices for them. And neither does an overarching concept of justice, and this is at the heart of what the novel’s really interested in. Justice isn’t a source of allegorical meaning that decides who people are, what they believe, and what happens to them as a result. This is never really up for debate, even though Vonvalt spends the novel trying to salvage his sense of justice as an unimpeachable idea beyond the whims of human greed, power, vengeance, and hatred. The novel asks questions about what it means when justice as a concept breaks down, and in turn about what it means to do the right thing—and how to determine what that is, if you can at all.



Roy Salzman-Cohen is a graduate student in New York studying Homeric Greek, tragedy, and fantasy and science fiction. He loves writing goofy fantasy noir (especially when it involves love letters), the Shield of Achilles, contract bridge, and seedy diners. He runs RPGs at royroleplays.strikingly.com.
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