Monday, March 25, 2024

The Completist: Richard Swan's EMPIRE OF THE WOLF

Just over a year later and here’s the second installment of my resurrected Completist series.* As a reminder, previous posts of: The Completist from the sadly closed SFSignal are still available via the Internet Archive Wayback Machine.

When a writer is able to publish a trilogy, on a book per year basis, readers, publishers, and the writer themselves is happy. Richard Swan did just that, in 2022 (The Justice of Kings), 2023 (The Tyranny of Faith), and 2024 (The Trials of Empire), through Orbit Books, he released the three-volume fantasy saga, Empire of the Wolf. An impressive accomplishment made even more impressive by the extremely high quality of the books themselves. 

Richard S. Swan has had some success self-publishing about a half-dozen science fiction novels. With The Justice of Kings, his fantasy debut from Orbit, Swan bursts onto the traditionally published scene and kicks off the Empire of the Wolf trilogy. The series is told from the first-person perspective of Helena Sedanka, the law clerk of Sir Konrad Vonvalt. Vonvalt is a King’s Justice of the Imperial Magistratum of the Sovan Empire, very much a knight in shining armor. Not unlike Watson relaying the events of Sherlock Holmes’s investigations, except that Vonvalt is not an independent investigator. He is the Emperor’s Voice, he is judge, jury, and executioner, when necessary. 

The novel, in the form of Helena’s notes, starts when Vonvalt is investigating a small town not practicing the religion of the empire, which might just be home of a witch. Konrad Vonvalt is Accompanying Vonvalt on this investigation is the aforementioned Helena (19 years old the time) and his “protector” Dubine Bressinger. At Vonvalt’s disposal are two powerful, magical/supernatural weapons. The first is the Emperor’s Voice, which compels those he interrogates to speak the truth to him. The other power is the necromantic ability to animate the dead, depending on how recently they’ve been killed and the state of their remains. Similar to the Emperor’s Voice, the dead are compelled to reveal the truth to Sir Konrad. After a short investigation in the hinterlands where a town is suspected of not conforming to the Empire’s religion, Vonvalt resolves the issue, though he gets some pushback from a rather zealous priest for compassionate towards the offenders leading to a conflict of wills. 

From there, the main mystery takes hold – the suspicious murder of a noblewoman. When Vonvalt, Helena, and Bressinger arrive and begin their investigations, they realize there is a deeper conspiracy afoot. It wasn’t a simple, random murder. Also under concern and somewhat connected to the murder is the daughter of the woman murdered was sent to a kloster prior to the events of the novel, but nothing has been heard from the girl since she entered the kloster. 

That’s the gut of the story – a murder mystery/conspiracy story. The world of the novel is at the precipice of a shift in power, and much of the conflict is between secular law and religious law. Those kinds of conflicting ideologies make for great story and Swan does a very good job of presenting this conflict through his characters. Vonvalt is looked upon as one of the highest of his order of Justices, he’s got a very strict definition of the law, he views the law as above everything else. But what makes Swan’s novel so enthralling is largely his voice as a writer, or at least how that voice comes through Helena’s reflective narration years after the events of the novel. I like that it was told from her “notes” rather than from any reflective remove of time through Vonvalt’s diaries. Utilizing this narrative structure allows for some foreshadowing and some very sharp hooks that will dig in at the end of some chapters that will keep you reading.

The magic and supernatural are present, but somewhat subtle. The power of the Emperor’s Voice is not employed very often, but the way in which other characters speak about this compulsion gives it even more weight in the story. The necromantic powers of speaking to the dead are conveyed with even greater awe, instilling even more fear into many of the characters.

Picking up shortly after the events of the previous novel, Helena and Konrad Vonvalt head to the capital of the Empire to investigate how deep the corruption they discovered in The Justice of Kings runs. Vonvalt has been away from the capital for years and so focused on his job as an investigator/inquisitor that he is a bit out of touch with the changes that have been happening, changes that don’t exactly sit well with him. The Magistratum (the body of power) is not as respected as they once were, their influence is not quite as strong and the enigmatic Patria Claver (the root of the Konrad’s problems) has spread his power widely and subtly.

But Vonvalt can’t focus on that, he is charged with retrieving the emperor’s kidnapped grandson, who is in a direct line for the throne. It doesn’t matter that Vonvalt (and most other characters) realize this kidnapping is a diversion. Even Vonvalt’s long-standing relationship with the Emperor can’t deter the Emperor from sending his most trusted knight to retrieve the heir.

Swan’s execution is very precise and measured. The building of the world, the fleshing out of the characters, the narrative drive, and the plotting all flow together from the pen and keyboard of a master. He constructed an extremely impressive foundation in The Justice of Kings and built on it admirably here in The Tyranny of Faith. What he accomplished is even more impressive considering how high the bar was. Helena was already a fantastically drawn character, but here she became more fleshed out. Konrad is still at a bit of a remove from Helena, but their relationship grows through some emotional turns.

Richard Swan’s mastery of the first-person narrative becomes even more evident in this novel. It doesn’t matter that we know at least Helena survives the events of this story, there is still a high amount of tension in the narrative, especially with the stingers like “but the good times wouldn’t last for long” at the end many chapters. It is a delicious sort of tension along the lines of the great Willy Wonka quote, “The suspense is terrible, I hope it will last.”

The somewhat subtle supernatural elements introduced in the first novel grew in prominence in this second novel in the trilogy. From the very beginning of the novel, and especially as Konrad and Helena arrive in the capital, a tingling sense of unease pervades the novel. Konrad’s health begins to deteriorate, the supernatural elements become more prominent and have an infectious affect on Helena. Part of that unease increases because of the necromantic powers Vonvalt – and all Emperor’s Justices can wield – enable him to cross the line of death, a dangerous enterprise.

The third and final volume in the trilogy, The Trials of Empire continues the story seamlessly from The Tyranny of Faith, with Konrad Vonvalt drastically powered down. He’s still got the Emperor’s Voice at his disposal, but from a stature standpoint, he is not what one would call “in good standing” with the empire. Despite this, he, Helena, the knight von Osterlen, and Sir Radomir are determined to put an end to Claver’s uprising. The problem is Claver’s influence has become very far ranging, to the point that Vonvalt is doubting his former allies, especially with Vonvalt being a wanted man.

The companions travel north towards the city of Seagurd, in the hope of finding the Emperor’s grandson. Unfortunately, the rumors of the city being destroyed are rather accurate. Claver’s power and influence are even wider than Vonvalt feared leading up to this point, he and what’s left of the Empire will not be able to defeat the arcane “priest” in its current state. He must find some allies who want to bring down Claver as much as Vonvalt does. This is no easy task because the Empire, and Vonvalt, has made enemies across the land.

The term “by any means necessary” is at the forefront of Vonvalt’s approach and this is quite distressing to Helena. She worries that Vonvalt will descend into the same kind of darkness that engulfed Claver. Vonvalt has already crossed some uncomfortable lines leading up to this point, lines that helped to define him. Vonvalt sees that the ends justifies the means, that any dark deeds he performs will pale in comparison to the world of darkness Claver seeks to unleash.

The demonic and otherworldly forces come more to the stage as the trilogy leads to its conclusion. The demons pulling Claver’s strings are more prominent and Helena’s ties to the god(?) Demon(?) Aegraxes (the character depicted on the cover of The Trials of Empire) become more defined. Aegraxes haunts Helena’s dreams, he may be pushing her towards something, but it may not be as bad as she fears.

While Vonvalt and Helena have their inner struggles, and struggles with each other, the fate of the Empire is hanging in the balance. Whether the Empire survives, is destroyed, or evolves into something else is not certain. This is one of the things Volvalt struggles with the most, for as he’s had to shift his morality – do evil deeds so a greater more imposing evil doesn’t succeed – he has had to examine the Empire that formed him. It is a very interesting concept to tackle, is the Empire we are trying to save worth saving? Has the world changed to the point that something different is better for the world and the people? Swan does not shy from any of these kinds of heavy topics throughout the series and especially here as the saga draws to a conclusion.

The Empire of the Wolf is a magnificent fantasy trilogy. Swan shows great skill in his characterization and how those characters deal with morally complex and philosophical challenges presented throughout the series. Epic Fantasy often flirts with horrific elements, after all, many of these tales demons or demonic entities are major threats or the actual Big Bad/Final Boss. As a reader who thoroughly enjoys horror, I really like when horror elements start to seep into Epic Fantasy and Swan deftly weaves those horrific and terrifying elements into his story. There are some eldritch powers at play in the magical powers in the world of this novel and Swan’s pace at easing those elements into the novel were superb.

Given that Helena was our narrator for the breadth of the series, it is no surprise she survived to the end of it. Swan brought the series to a fantastic conclusion, tying up the majority of the plot threads in a satisfactory and expert fashion. There’s definite potential for more stories to be told in this world and specifically featuring Helena, however changed it became from the first page. Helena is a marvelous narrator and character, I’d say her voice is as consistent and engaging as Fitzchivalry Farseer from Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings saga. Helena is utterly believable, she exudes empathy, and is magnetic in a way that made me as the reader drawn to her very powerfully. 

I would be remiss if I didn’t draw major attention to the wonderful design and art, by Lauren Panepinto and Martina Fačková respectively. Striking images that provide these three books with a gorgeous visual identity that perfectly match and complement Swan’s powerful and engaging storytelling between the covers.

Each book in the 500-page range and would make for a wonderful reading experience back-to-back-to-back.

Empire of the Wolf is a must-read of 21st Century Speculative Fiction. It is a series that upon completion I can look back and level no real faults at what Swan accomplished. I am eager to see where his words take us next. The series has been very successful: it has sold quite well and it is held in high regard by fans, reviewers, and published authors alike. In short, Empire of the Wolf is an instant classic.

Parts of this column appeared previously at SFFWorld in the form of my reviews of the first two books in the series: 

*having more job responsibilities (A GOOD THING, BTW) does get in the way of regular blogging

All images copyright Orbit Books and used with courtesy. The last tryptich was borrowed in good faith from Martina Fačková's website. Head over there to bask in the glory of her powerful, beautiful images. 

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