I was recently fortunate enough to enjoy two weeks of holiday… so essentially two weeks in which to read whatever I wanted, regardless of genre. My initial plan was to read A Song of Ice and Fire – which I did, for a while anyway – but of course I eventually succumbed to my natural craving for historical fiction.
It was then that I started reading The King’s Justice by E.M. Powell, which had been high on my reading list for a little while. And I’m glad I did. I enjoyed it thoroughly, so much so that it seems only right to review it and spread the word.
Set in 1176, The King’s Justice is a historical mystery – the first in E.M. Powell’s new Stanton and Barling series – that plunges the reader right into the gritty world of 12th century crime and punishment. It’s a world where life is cheap and justice frequently flawed. The dreaded ordeal, where the accused are either forcibly submerged in water or made to hold hot iron, is used to establish guilt or innocence in cases where the evidence isn’t conclusive, and just being an outcast or itinerant is enough to see you accused with little or no evidence.
But it’s also a time of legal reform, and it’s from the perspective of Aelred Barling, a clerk to the king’s justices, and his assistant Hugo Stanton, that we experience the story. Between them, they’re faced with a grisly murder, a village full of suspicions, and a tendency among the populace to prefer summary justice to careful examination of the evidence. It’s their task not only to investigate the crime but also to bring Henry II’s new legal standards to bear in a place where it’s abundantly clear they’re not wanted.
I could say the brilliance of The King’s Justice comes from the strength of its central mystery, and it’s certainly a compelling one. When Stanton and Barling arrive in the village where the murder has taken place, it seems like an open and shut case. But as the story progresses, it turns into anything but. The twists and turns kept me hooked all the way through, and E.M. Powell shows a deft hand for misdirection, suspense, and surprise.
I could also say its brilliance comes from the underlying sense of hostility that Stanton and Barling encounter from the villagers and their lord, which roots the story in its historical context and means danger is never far away for the two investigators.
But what struck me just as much, and what is essential for any series to succeed, was the strength of the characters, particularly the two central characters and the relationship between them. You see, Stanton and Barling don’t much like or respect each other, and the appeal of their interaction comes from your knowledge that they really ought to. Watching them slowly realise and grudgingly acknowledge each other’s strengths over the course of the novel kept me as absorbed in the characters as I was in the plot.
So, there you have it: it’s a truly excellent book. For anyone looking for a good historical mystery, I thoroughly recommend The King’s Justice, and I look forward to reading more in the series.