Richard Swan on the Necessity of Creating Limits in Fantastical Worldbuilding
In Conversation with Gabrielle Martin on the New Books Network
The Justice of Kings opens with our young narrator, Helena, traveling from town to town as clerk to the King’s Justice, a learned and idealistic man called Vonvalt. The first few chapters build towards a pivotal incident, the razing of the village of Rill and the immolation of its inhabitants. Vonvalt, who has leeway on how he applies common law, has discovered the village still worshipped the old gods, and imposed a fine as punishment, privately cautioning the local Lord to worship more discreetly.
However, Patria Claver, the priest who traveled with Helena’s party, had his own ideas about how to handle pagans and returned with a party of crusading soldiers to mete out death to the inhabitants. This sets up the central conflict between Vonvalt, a rational man who prides himself on a measured and appropriate response, and the nobles who back Claver, amassing a private and punitive army of crusaders. While Vonvalt has been dispensing the King’s Justice in the hinterlands, the political landscape of the Empire has shifted, and soon, Vonvalt and his crew find themselves struggling to maintain control of events in a shifting world.
Gabrielle Martin: Though your series doesn’t highlight magic, the Emperor’s Justice, Vonvalt, has a few magical powers, including a controversial one. Tell us a bit about them.
Richard Swan: Every Justice has at least one, and normally two, magical powers. The first one they all have is the Emperor’s voice, which is the power to compel a person to speak the truth, and the one you’re alluding to is necromancy. Vonvalt can speak with the dead. It’s controversial within the Empire because it’s quite horrifying. It’s a power that’s jealously guarded by the Order of the Magistrata (the Emperor’s Justices belong to the Order), and it’s shrouded in mystery. It opens the door to an old and magical arcane world, which has been occluded by the powers of civilization and secularization. It doesn’t fit into general imperial life. It’s seems like a dangerous an outdated practice.
At the same time, it’s obviously potent when it works, because you can find out quickly when someone has been murdered who did it because the victim themselves can tell you. What I wanted to do when I wrote the novel—because the powers that Vonvalt has are so powerful—was to make sure that they have appropriately high levels of energy expenditure. In the case of the Emperor’s Voice, it often exhaust him, and in the case of necromancy, I had to apply certain limits. It only works if the person is freshly killed and the head is intact—the brain can’t be smashed to pieces—and they’re generally well disposed to the Justice. If a Justice would conduct a séance with an older corpse, one that’s in a state of decomposition, whose mind was in a dark place when they were killed, then that soul becomes prey to predators in the afterlife, so it becomes dangerous. Every time Vonvalt does exercise necromancy, he’s taking a great risk. It’s obviously a frightening and distracting process. It’s not like every time they find a body, Vonvalt can just ask “Who murdered you?” and the body says “It was that person” and the case is closed.
Richard Swan studied law at the University of Manchester and spent the following ten years as a litigator. He self-published epic space opera novels, and two mil-sci-fi novellas before his debut fantasy trilogy sold to Orbit Books.
Richard currently lives and writes in Sydney, Australia. Fun fact: Since he arrived in Australia, the weather has permitted him to wear shorts every day.
As well as being a fantasy writer, Gabrielle Martin has a Master’s in Traditional Chinese Medicine. She lives in Switzerland where she maintains an acupuncture practice, tries to save her lettuce seedlings from ravenous slugs, and hikes over mountain passes for fun.