Today I am excited to share with you all the first of two upcoming interviews featuring Richard Swan, author of the fantasy novel The Justice of Kings, out tomorrow 2/22! The Justice of Kings is Swan's fantasy debut and is sure to make a big mark in the fantasy world with it's gripping narrative, complex characters, and a world system that just begs to be explored. (You can read more of my thoughts about the book in my review.)
I am incredibly appreciative and grateful to both Angela Man of Orbit for setting up this interview and Richard Swan himself for taking time out of his schedule to answer some questions for me! I had a lot of fun coming up with questions and even more fun reading Swan's answers–I hope you all enjoy learning a bit more about Richard Swan and The Justice of Kings with this interview. Now, let's dive in!
You’ve been writing SFF for a number of years now. What changes (if any) have you noticed in your writing over the years?
RS: I think the biggest change I’ve noticed in my writing, certainly as I’ve got older, is that I’ve found I’ve had more to say. I’ve started to allegorise more—and not be afraid to allegorise—and I’ve found that that exploration very motivating and in some ways cathartic. When I was younger I was just interested in writing actiony explosive sci-fi and collapsing fantasy empires; now I find I’m much more interested (both as a consumer and producer of fiction) in exploring the human condition against a backdrop of actiony explosive sci-fi and collapsing fantasy empires.
The Justice of Kings really stood out to me as a unique story with the narrative style and the law focus. This may be a more common question, but I always love to know: is there anything in particular that inspired The Justice of Kings?
RS: Absolutely! The story frame (i.e. having the story be about Sir Konrad but not told by him) was inspired by Robert Harris’s Cicero Trilogy, in which the storied life of Cicero is told not by Cicero himself, but by his slave, Tiro, whilst the Slavic/Teutonic feel of the world was inspired by both the Witcher 3 videogame, and more broadly the late Antiquity Roman Empire/Holy Roman Empire non-fiction I was reading around the same time. More generally my day job as a litigator was a big part of it, and the idea of “fantasy lawyers” has been bubbling away in the back of my mind for a few years now. The magickal powers—necromancy and the Emperor’s Voice—really just came from me thinking about what the most useful powers for an investigator to have would be (being able to use animals as witnesses, asking homicide victims directly who murdered them, and forcefully extracting confessions from people).
More general sources of inspiration include CJ Sansom’s Shardlake series, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, and Dan Abnett’s Eisenhorn / Ravenor inquisitor trilogies as well, and I don’t think any of those will come as a surprise to readers.
How has the story evolved since you first began writing it? Did you plan for it to be a longer form series or did it grow from something smaller?
RS: The Justice of Kings started life as a short story called the “Witch of Rill”, which I wrote during a long, cold and rainy February weekend in Exmoor. I tried to sell it to a few publications without success, but I liked the premise so I expanded it into a full novel. It was quite short for a fantasy novel, only a hundred thousand words. I had originally planned for it to be a series of indeterminate length, in which Vonvalt, Helena and Bressinger would solve a new crime each book, but actually I think the narrative strength of the novel—that of Helena’s voice and how she bears witness to both Vonvalt’s changing character and the fall of the Sovan Empire—could not be effectively sustained over more than a trilogy, so I began to focus on a tighter arc. By the time it passed through my agent and then my editor at Orbit like some kind of literary Human Centipede, the book was about 30,000 words longer and with a few crucial changes that I can’t talk about without spoiling it!
I was surprised to find the story narrated by Helena rather than Vonvalt when I first started reading and ending up loving that narrative choice. How did you decide to tell the story of Vonvalt through Helena’s perspective–and as a recounting of the past, as well?
RS: I think the narrative choice has caught a lot of people off guard. I chose Helena to narrate for a number of reasons. The first is that I think it preserves a great deal of the mystique around Vonvalt, as well as giving us a more rounded view of him as a person. Viewing him through Helena’s lens means that we can analyse his character and try to deduce his motivations, but we can never know. It means the narrative is more unpredictable—and, hopefully, more interesting. I think it would be unsatisfactory for a reader to hear Vonvalt’s inner thoughts and monologues. Justices, after all, are supposed to be semi-mythological figures, these slightly outmoded judicial demigods, and seeing the world from inside his head as he deconstructs every judgment could only be disappointing.
I also think (hope!) Helena is a fascinating character in herself. She is someone who has been plucked from poverty and obscurity and who should be grateful for the life of wealth and privilege she has ahead of her, but who instead feels listless; she is uncomfortable with her new status and is still finding her way in the world. Helena has had a traumatic upbringing and Vonvalt is the first true constant in her life, and I think it’s interesting to see the effect it has on Helena when Vonvalt begins to lose control of events. Her temperament becomes much more defensive and mercurial as the world begins to descend into chaos, and that was another rich seam of characterisation to explore.
As for having Helena narrate as an old woman, this again throws up a host if storytelling devices which I personally love—lots of dramatic irony and foreshadowing! We know from the first paragraph of the book that we are witnessing the decline and fall of the Sovan Empire; what we don’t know is how it happens, who (beside Helena) survives that experience, and also what the form of the world is now. It also enables Helena to turn a critical eye to her own past actions and reflect, which allows me to inject a bit of unreliability into her narration, and some melancholy, regret and foreboding.
I was personally captivated by the character Bressinger–he was so multifaceted to where he seemed like a jokester at times, but also was very no-nonsense and serious as well with a darker undertone. How do you go about developing your characters' personalities/backgrounds and getting into their individual mindsets?
RS: The Justice of Kings was the first book where I really drilled into my characters’ histories as a way of developing their ‘present day’ personalities. I really took the time to think about the things they had endured in their early lives and how this would have affected them as older people. All of them, for example, had early experiences of warfare, and I wanted to demonstrate how a huge, empire-spanning war could traumatise an entire generation of people (in the way that WWI did, for example).
For Vonvalt, his adolescence spent campaigning with the Legions tells me that he is a quiet, serious adult, and a man who uses the law and moral absolutism as a way of avoiding having to truly grapple with the implications of what he did as a soldier for the Empire.
For Bressinger, who suffered a life-altering personal tragedy, he has essentially unresolved post-traumatic stress disorder. He drinks excessively, he suffers huge mood swings, and like Helena he is wholly dependent on Vonvalt for stability in his life. For other, book 2 spoilery reasons, he is doggedly loyal to Vonvalt—to a fault, so that makes him prickly whenever Helena is being rude to their shared master.
For Helena, she was too young to fight in the Reichskrieg, but her home city Muldau was sacked and suffered a number of uprisings over the years which eventually led to the death of her parents and her becoming a ward of the state. So while she spent years developing a pugnacious, survivalist comportment of hard iron, she is still young and desperate for stability and a parental figure. But whilst Helena is grateful to Vonvalt for providing all of those things, she also has to contend with the (what she perceives to be) drudgery of Vonvalt’s practice as a Justice, which makes her feel trapped and therefore surly, listless and temperamental as well.
The themes of the law, justice, and morality are obviously very prominent in this book. What excited you about exploring these ideas?
RS: My interest in these themes really began when I studied jurisprudence at university. I was fascinated by the philosophy of law, by moral absolutism versus moral relativism, consequentialist versus deontological ethics, and the intersection between law, the state, and the people—the ‘social contract’. All of these things together really get into the nuts and bolts of how civilised societies work and how they function on a daily basis, and how “the law” achieves that equilibrium.
If you think about it for a moment, there is practically nothing physically stopping you from grabbing a knife and killing your neighbour. But our society isn’t one constant cycle of bloodshed—in fact, contrary to what you’d think, we’re actually living in one of the safest and most peaceful periods in human history. If I asked you why you haven’t killed your neighbour, you’d likely say “for obvious reasons!”—and you’d be right. But to really drill down into it, to get into the guts of it and really ask why killing is wrong, you actually get an answer which is vast and multi-faceted that covers a huge mass of intersecting biological, historical, sociological, legal, moral and ethical issues.
In the Justice of Kings I wanted to take this broad canvas ask the question: what happens when an ultimately ethical, secular legal system produces the ‘wrong’ outcome? What ultimately is the right thing to do, and what means are permitted to achieve that outcome? And also to demonstrate, as we have seen recently, that it doesn’t take much more than a few lunatics acting in bad faith to upset the world order.
The Justice of Kings was the type of book that forced me to slow down and really drink in every word because of the thoughtful prose narrative, the many discussions regarding law and the state of this fantasy world, and of course the world of the Sovan Empire itself. How did you grow about creating the world of the Sovan Empire–did you start with the world itself, the characters, etc.?
RS: My planning process is quite a random process but it hasn’t changed since I was in my late teens. Normally when I am designing a fictional society I’ll find and save a picture of the Cultural Iceberg and flesh out lots of different bits of it in no particular order. So there are things that I “know” about the Sovan Empire which don’t make it into the book because they are not relevant, but which helped me create it and its feel. Fleshing out these details—for example, the Emperor’s family tree (the “Haugenates”)—also creates backstory consistency and lets me drop in random details into the main narrative to give the characters’ conversations an air of verisimilitude.
As for a geographical/political analogue, it will shock no-one to learn that I used the Holy Roman Empire as my base, with some flavours of Late Antiquity Rome, the Achaemenid Persian Empire, and Medieval England to taste. That involved a few days of reading about those different cultures, looking at maps, looking at German toponymy, etc. To add in a feeling of multiple similar but different cultures coexisting within one landmass, I used a variety of Baltic / Slavic names as well, often with minor modifications.
The characters of Vonvalt and Helena came very early in this process, but this time I really took the time to flesh them out. Bressinger came later, and most of the other secondary characters actually just sort of popped up as I was writing the book.
And I always have to ask because I love hearing the answer from authors: do you have a favorite character from The Justice of Kings, and is this character also your favorite to write? If not, who was/is your favorite to write?
RS: I did really enjoy writing Sir Radomir, even though he doesn’t appear much in the novel. It’s difficult to talk about him without spoiling parts of book 2, but I like him because he has that kind of straight-talking, gritty, urban wisdom and is a foil to Vonvalt’s erudite, liberal sensibilities. He also has a very world-weary courage; the kind of man who will fight in spite of just about any odds because it’s the right thing to do. His and Vonvalt’s relationship shifts and changes over the course of the book, and I enjoyed exploring that.
Anything you can tell us about upcoming works, or anything in general that you’d like readers to know? I am very eager (as I’m sure many other readers are) to see more of the Sovan Empire in any form! Huge congratulations on your release of The Justice of Kings!
RS: Thank you so much! At the time of writing my answers to these questions I about 30,000 words into the first draft of book 3 of the Empire of the Wolf, and I anticipate getting Orbit’s edits back on book 2 in the next couple of weeks. So those two books will really monopolise my writing time for a large chunk of 2022. So much of what follows will depend on the success (or failure!) of these books; I would love to do a trilogy of trilogies and follow the Sovan Empire (or rather, the landmass that it inhabits) through centuries of upheaval and conflict. Reading Fonda Lee’s Jade war has made me want to bring it all the way up to modern day (a quadrilogy of trilogies?) - basically to make it my own MCU. But these are all the crazy daydreams of a lunatic, company-starved writer.
About The Justice of Kings:
Hardcover. 432 pages. Orbit.