This was promising! I’ve had my eye on it since it was published, and an audio sale at Libro.fm finally gave me the incentive to pick it up. I was originally reading The Pariah by Anthony Ryan at this spot in my February TBR, but listening to that book was a better sleep aid than it was a story*, and after only a couple of hours of attempting to listen, I swapped it out for this one, and that was a great decision. I particularly liked the audio version. Lucy Paterson does a great job conveying the older narrator, Helena Sadenka, as she looks back on her younger years shadowing and clerking for Justice Konrad Vonvalt as they tour the Empire dealing out the Emperor’s Justice (this does involve arcane magical powers, two of which Vonvalt holds, including the Emperor’s Voice and the ability to speak with the newly dead).
*I might come back to it later. I just may not have been in the mood, as I’ve really liked Anthony Ryan’s stuff in the past.
Vonvalt (and by extension Helena) are tools of the Empire and at the beginning of the story, he is steadfast in his upholding of the law, and his moral compass is guided by a sort of kindness and compassion. We follow he and his team at the beginning through one village where we see what the life of a traveling Justice is like, before it can all go to hell. Honestly, though I’m going to talk about the book’s main flaw in a bit, I really could have used maybe one more story about them traveling to another town and dispensing justice in a more routine way, so the impact when the whole system starts to crack later on feels greater. But anyway, there is trouble brewing in the Empire as a whole, and we see it start here in a smaller scale. Religious zealots are wanting to take back the arcane power that the Justices now claim as their own, and they are undermining the foundations of the Empire to do it.
This book was deceptively complex as it traverses a murder mystery/fantasy detective plot, all the while laying the seeds for a trilogy-long arc involving the fall of the Empire of the Wolf, and presumably SPOILER the moral fall of Vonvalt END SPOILER. Future Helena was a good choice for narrator, as it lent it a nuance that would have been much harder and much less satisfying to achieve by following Vonvalt himself. Her outside perspective makes it more intriguing the whole way through.
That said, Swan made a major error in one of the main arcs of the book. He gives the nineteen-year old Helena a “love interest”, who is a guard in the town in which they are investigating the murder of a noble lady. Oh my good God, talk about instalove. Part of this can be written off as Helena being young and naïve, and there is some of that as older Helena reflects on her actions, but most of the failure of this part of the story is due to the author not doing a good job developing the love interest as a character (I have no idea how to spell his name bc audio), and not developing their dynamic as a duo. One minute they are lusting after each other, literally three days later they are “in love.” It is completely emotionally empty. Thus, when later we are asked to feel emotions about this pairing, we don’t, and a crucial climax of the story falls flat. I can see what Swan was trying to do with this storyline, but he doesn’t pull it off. Helena needs both a way to question her own path and inclinations towards her career, and a “loss of innocence” moment to motivate her for the future, but what he does with the love interest does not further either of those goals, so you just have to sort of get there on your own, which is not ideal. I’m hoping he’ll navigate Helena’s personal life with more care in the next two books.
Anyway, I’m super interested to see where this series is going. I hope there are still investigations in the next two books as the overarching story takes up more space in the narrative.