“The King’s Justice” is a medieval murder mystery/thriller by E. M. Powell, the first in a new series and thus a good jumping on point for people who are interested in murder mysteries/thrillers set in the medieval period. I won this book in a goodreads giveaway and this review is my own opinion.
Content Note: threatened sexual assault to more than one party, domestic violence
It’s 1176 and Aelred Barling, a clerk in the traveling court of King Henry the II, is sent to a small hamlet in the middle of nowhere to investigate a murder. As a representative of the king, he is there to make sure that proper procedures are followed and justice is served. He brings along an assistant, Hugo Stanton, a messenger that also works for the court. They don’t like each other very much but have to learn to work together… which is a common enough trope but Powell manages to make it feel realistic and organic, not a cliche.
The case initially seems obvious. The suspect is locked in a cell and the townsfolk and lord are certain he’s guilty. Barling is ready to give approval for the execution and go home, until Stanton notices something important about the case.
It’s a good and engaging book, a fast read. Stories set in the medieval era are often sanitized. People have clean hair and all their teeth. Powell’s medieval England is a dirty, stinking, violent, sweaty place where people die a lot. Life’s pretty uncertain. And gross.
One flaw of the book is that toward the end it switches from a straight up murder mystery to a thriller, with the antagonist Explaining Things. It feels like the author ultimately doesn’t trust the reader and thus spells things out that could be gathered through contextual clues or from dialog between other characters… or just left a mystery. This ‘flaw’ might just be my own personal preferences, though. Others might find it exactly what they’re looking for.
There’s references throughout the book to Stanton’s dead lover which I found a little irritating. They reference another book in which he’s a minor character. They seem to be a big motivation, but new readers are left with the barest context… we know it’s a big deal but not why. Maybe that’ll be gone into more deeply in future books.
As the first book in a series, though, this is a solid one. We have two interesting characters who learn to work together but are still a bit prickly toward each other. I look forward to future books where their personalities bounce off each other. There’s hints at greater depths to the characters, as well, which can be gone into in future books. I’m glad I won this because it’s opened up a new series for me… although I’ll have to wait for those future books to be written and published (the second book is available for pre-order).