Last Updated on February 14, 2024
In The Trials of Empire by Richard Swan, book three of The Empire of the Wolf trilogy, we finally find out what is driving Bartholomew Claver to such great evil. We see the dark fate of Sova and the crumbling of the Empire of the Wolf. Most importantly, we also get to see the fates of Helena and Vonvalt play out across the page. Having started out so strongly with The Justice of Kings, and then followed up with the rare achievement of an even stronger book two in The Tyranny of Faith, my hopes were absolutely sky high–and Swan has delivered on those expectations in spades.
In The Trials of Empire we once again view the story through the eyes of Helena, Sir Konrad Vonvalt’s clerk-turned-retainer. Vonvalt is in a dire position as the Magistratum has been dismantled, he and his people are outlaws, and Claver is in control of a significant force of Templars with eyes on the throne. They must span the borders of the empire to find allies, allies who the emperor has spent untold lives trying to conquer and are very unlikely to want to help. And while they travel and hide and hope, waking nightmares haunt Helena, bringing dark portents and promising a far worse end for the empire than just a sword in the guts.
Helena’s life seems to be on the path to a very different, far more bleak outcome than she originally hoped for when Vonvalt took her from the mud and into his service. Her internal monologue first person style once again wonderfully delivers the story, always hinting at more beyond the page, and describing her complex relationship with Vonvalt and the story through the lens of an exhausted young woman who sees herself as so small and insignificant when standing next to the colossal grandiosity of dark events she is a key part of.
The slowly building, but eventually drastic change in Vonvalt and Helena’s relationship is incredibly well delivered. It shows Helena’s growth and Vonvalt delivering on his darkly prophetic words spoken in earlier books. It shows the way that life cannot be black and white, and that good people must sometimes do bad things to achieve the right outcomes for the greater good, but that this also circles back to have a profound impact on those people and their friends and families.
We go deep into the otherworldly side of Swan’s world in The Trials of Empire, peeling back the religious Neman Church’s scripting and worship layers that sit over the reality of death. This theme and delivery was one of my favourite aspects of The Trials of Empire, with the depiction of the afterlife feeding on the fallen of a battle a moment where I needed to put down the book and just take in a deep breath of sheer enjoyment.
Early on in The Trials of Empire, I was missing some of the legal procedural aspects of the first two books as Swan really gets his epic dark fantasy chops rolling off the page in impressive form. Throughout there are ruminations on topics such as the death penalty that give you a high level theoretical discourse on Sovan law and Helena’s views on it, but I did miss the lawman’s consistent procedural aspect and the legal banter that I enjoyed so much in books one and two. I needn’t have worried, however, as Swan did an excellent job of holding it back in a way that made sense in the circumstances until just the right moment in one of the most satisfying scenes in the entire book.
The Trials of Empire by Richard Swan is a morose and satisfying ending to The Empire of the Wolf trilogy. It’s as bloody as Mathew Ward’s Legacy trilogy, as enjoyable as I could have hoped for as a reading experience, and certainly leaves a door open for more of Helena’s life to be put to page. There are very few trilogies I would commit to re-reading cover-to-cover, back-to-back, but Swan’s trilogy can take its place next to The Broken Empire, The Empires of Dust, and The First Law.