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  • Writer's pictureE L Crocker

The Tyranny of Faith by Richard Swan: A Review

All aboard for a ride through the best of what modern fantasy has to offer in this remarkable feast for brain and heart.

Standard note: This review is also posted on Goodreads and Amazon; this really helps authors, so if you like this book then please do this too

The Tyranny of Faith is the second book in the Empire of the Wolf series. The first, The Justice of Kings, blew most fantasy fans away last year with its thorny questions of law and politics, the fantastic character of Sir Konrad Vonvalt – the judge, jury and executioner upholding the Empire’s law - its tight, addictive prose and memorably excruciating set pieces. So there was a lot at stake with this second entry. Would it be a Matrix Reloaded, dashing the promise of the original? Or would it be an Empire Strikes Back? Well thankfully it’s the latter, because Swan has written a quite remarkable sequel, an astonishing medley of character, theme, mystery and action that hits every mark like Hawkeye on speed.

The book opens with Vonvalt and his retinue heading towards the capital Sova, to warn the Emperor of the conspiracy at its heart and weed out the traitors in the Magisterium (the law branch of the Empire). It’s in these sections that we see the true breadth of the fantastic political analogy Swan is crafting with this trilogy. The Justice of Kings made it clear that Swan is partly gunning for the failings of modern day politicians – complacent moderate/liberal governments who have ignored the masses and allowed extremists to manipulate the message and the political rules (see Brexit, Trump et al.). In Tyranny, we get a gloriously astute doubling down on this analogy that makes this one of the most valuable political fantasies around. Whether it’s political factions warring with themselves or moderates empowering the political fringes for an easy life, it’s hard not to think Swan is taking direct aim at the polarized, pathetic state of America at the moment. During a trip to the Senate, Helena watches as rebel Senators make offensive point after offensive point, designed to provoke rather than debate anything of substance; it’s hard not to be reminded of the extreme wing of the US Republican party who grind the business of Congress to a halt and then use the chaos to build their social media empire. If you’re a political nerd, you’ll feast on this like it’s your last meal.

But if you’re not here for the political analogies, then that’s okay because the fantastic character study of Vonvalt, and his slowly slipping fidelity to the laws he puts so much stock in upholding, continues apace here. The genius of this is that his increasing failings are seen through the eyes of the idealistic Helena, and through her we feel ourselves the incredible frustration of watching a man of supposed principle melt away his ideals. Part of the fun here is trying to weigh his justifications. Does he have a point to say that rules must be bent when a empire’s fate is at stake? Or, in the end, is he just a frustrated human at desperation point, and was Helena’s idealistic view of him always a mirage?

This thorny moral question continues throughout the book, with other members of Vonvalt’s retinue weighing in on it, and ultimately comes to a head with a revelation about Vonvalt himself that throws the whole question on its head and challenges everything Helena has been assuming. It’s a sign of how deep we are into this fantastic character study that this small bit of backstory comes across as a humongous twist; more so even than the massive twists at the end of the book. It’s rare to have a whole character reimagined on the spot, but Swan dares to do this and it’s a bravura, swashbuckling move, a subtle realignment of everything we’ve assumed that throws up everything in the air. You won’t see a bolder, cleverer character arc this year. Speaking of character arcs; Helena comes into her own here; still vulnerable, still idealistic but increasingly bold and brave, being forced into some truly horrendous ordeals and arguably achieving more than Vonvalt. Her weary realisation of certain home truths about the Empire and her role model is the emotional heart of this novel.

Aside from all these deep themes and character beats, this book is tonnes of fun. Every new locale is revealed in glorious detail. We see the capital in all its gaudy, architecturally bruising glory; we see the decrepit Crusade fortresses of the southern frontier; and we see some frankly disturbing new vistas in various otherworldly locales. We get gruesome, brutal battle scenes, and more viscera and gore than a Saw franchise. And we get wit too; particularly in Bressinger and Radomir, the comedy duo who also bring subtlety and poignancy and, in their relationships with Helena, ground the novel a little, anchoring us amidst all the tragedy and horror and Machiavellian politicking.

Tonally, Swan gives us everything; so much so it shouldn’t work but work it does. The entire middle section of the book is given over to a subplot that calms the action, and seems odd at first; but fans of murder mysteries (though technically this is an abduction mystery) will soon see what is coming and start looking at clues. The genius of Swan’s plotting here though is that the mystery here is not so much the crime in front of your face but what’s happening behind it. If you spot the subtle clues (there’s one particularly brilliant one that only diehard mystery readers will be alerted to) then good for you, if you don’t then the final volley of shocking twists will leave you reeling.

Then there’s the horror. Oh boy, the horror. Swan can write fantasy, and now it turns out he’s a master of the macabre too; I can’t wait till he goes full rom-com in the next one. He goes full Lovecraft here, with a hefty Clive Barker thrown in for good measure. All the elements of the Cthulhu mythos are here – the idea of truths so great they turn you insane, the concept of elder great god-like beings who either manipulate us or simply see us as insects; the impact of language; the metaphysical ideas of interconnectedness and interdimensional planes. If you’re into your eldritch, then there is more fun to be had here than a golden retriever in a ball pit. And Swan, consistent with his predilection for giving us the fun but giving us the thoughtful, offers up hideous beasts and exploding bodies while also throwing out concepts of what the afterlife really is. In fact, one character poses a question regarding the relationship of our life to the next that could take up a whole book in itself; but such is the intellectual feast this novel is that it’s a throwaway line, a grenade thrown in a room already packed with bazookas.

Then, in the last hundred pages or so, we get a breathless mixture of battle, horror, tragedy, revelation and seismic political manoeuvrings. It’s a breathless sprint, the kind of finale you speedread through because you’re desperate to find out what happens to certain characters, and it is the perfect setup for the third book.

Overall, then, Swan has melded genre after genre into a book forged from narrative steel, and done so with some of the best dialogue you’re likely to see in any genre, never mind fantasy. It’s an astonishing achievement that will take your breath away at times. There might be a better fantasy this year, but it will have to smack harder than the Emperor’s Voice pumped through God’s loudspeaker to beat this marvel.

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