Wow. This is a fantastic first book in a new epic fantasy series. I am not sure when the next book in this series is coming out, but it’s not soon enough. I have not read this author before and I’ve clearly been missing out. I need to go back and read his other series The Art of War Trilogy.
The book is set in “the Empire”. The main character, Sir Konrad Vonvalt, is an Emperor’s Justice. 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 secret magic passed down from Justice to Justice, or his wealth of knowledge of the laws of the empire. He travels a circuit throughout the Empire holding Court and dispensing justice. He is viewed as the Emperor himself, and is therefore treated with extreme deference. The story is told through the eyes of Vonvalt’s aide Helena. As an elderly woman writing her memoirs, Helena tells the tale of the beginning of a conspiracy that could end all Justices and the Empire itself.
Helena assists Vonvalt in his investigations, takes notes and drafts his legal documents. She is training to possibly become a Justice herself. The other member of their team is Bressinger. He also aides Vonvalt in his investigations and acts as his bodyguard and protector. The story begins with the team traveling to small and medium villages on the outskirts of the Empire. Along the way they are joined by a zealot priest who pesters the Justice with a barrage of constant questioning, attempting to learn the ways of the Justices, including their secrets. Vonvalt views him as nothing more dangerous than an irritant, although this opinion will later be proven wrong. As the team gets stuck for weeks investigating the death of a noblewoman in a larger town, the conspiracy begins to unfold and they are caught in its midst.
There is a lot of information provided in this 496 page book. The worldbuilding is sprinkled throughout rather than provided in a big info dump, which is nice. There is just enough information provided to allow the reader to understand what is going on, however it’s clear there are more mysteries to discover about the world. We see Vonvalt and Bressinger’s actions through Helena’s perspective, which is sometimes flawed and naive.
Helena is 19 at the beginning of the book and has been devoted to Vonvalt ever since he rescued her from a dismal childhood and provided her with an education and career path. The author does a good job portraying her struggle with becoming a young woman and wondering if she is meant to live a different life. Helena is having doubts about becoming a Justice. After two solid years on the road travelling from village to village, she wonders if she would find happiness settled down in one place raising a family. That life becomes a possibility when her head is turned by a young town guardsman. Observing her struggle, Vonvalt gives her a choice to leave with him and continue her studies, or remain in town when he leaves. Unexpectedly provided with an opportunity to live a quieter life, Helena learns that perhaps she is meant for more after all.
We slowly learn how a huge past war that is repeatedly mentioned, but never fully discussed, changed a lot of men’s perspectives about life, including Vonvalt and Bressinger. The author instills in them on one hand more tolerance and patience, but a decisiveness and willingness to take immediate action once the decision is made on the other. This duality saves the team’s life on more than one occasion. This battle between wanting peace and also wanting quick and efficient justice plays out in the men’s interactions many times throughout the course of the book. We also see how certain experiences can change the viewpoint and character of a person, and how morally gray situations and decisions can become.
This is a book that requires your full attention while reading. There are lots of moving pieces to keep track of and several minor characters that become important at various times during the story. While there are times of fighting and action, there are just as many quiet times in between that provide the groundwork on which the full story unfolds. I completely enjoyed reading this book and can’t wait to read the next book in the series. If you love detailed and complex plotlines, unreliable narrators and flawed characters, this is the book for you. I highly recommend you read it.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from Orbit Books and NetGalley. All opinions are my own.