Judges – “When the Light Lay Still”

Written by: Charles J Eskew
Published by: Abaddon Books

Synopsis: Ezekiel Jones was a cop, and proud of it—until his partner shot a kid and covered it up. Ezekiel testified against her, but the inquiry went nowhere, leaving everything he’d believed in ruins. He joined the new Judges programme the next day. Moulded and shaped to be the first of the new breed of law-makers, Jones hits the streets again. But as a new weapon gets into the hands of radicals and the tension rises, both Jones and those he serves have to decide where their loyalties lie.

Set decades before Judge Dredd was cloned from the DNA of Chief Judge Fargo, the Judges series of novellas present a fresh and unfamiliar view of the Justice System – still in its infancy and struggling to overthrow the current regime of courts, cops and due process. It is extremely interesting to see how our world morphs into theirs, and the writers have used the current political climate to portray an eerily accurate vision of a public willing to trade in their freedoms in exchange for “security”. While previous installments in the series have shown a primitive, prototype view of the Judges and how their infrastructure fits into existing police force, “When the Light Lay Still” focuses more on race and diversity, giving voice to a previously unheard demographic in the Justice Department.

While there have been some examples of different ethnicities and people of colour within Judge Dredd stories such as Judge Giant and Judge Beeny, few have made any real impact on the narrative and the vast majority of Mega-City One still feels predominately white. “When the Light Lay Still” challenges this with its lead protagonist, Ezekiel Jones, a gay black man who becomes a Judge and has to face prejudices and difficulties in separating his emotions from the stone-cold facade of the law. The book uses street slang and the n-word, which adds a sense of authenticity to the dialogue and gave me an insight into a different corner of Judge Dredd’s world, which has never been explored within the series itself. It was extremely refreshing to read about a non-white protagonist and to explore a different mindset, alien to my own. Jones felt well developed as a character, and an interesting mirror image of Dredd, despite predating the man by a few decades.

Author Charles J Eskew has a lyrical way with his words, and while his writing can be somewhat dense at times, it rewards that extra attention with some wonderfully evocative descriptions. Eskew doesn’t dumb things down for the audience, and some of the big ‘reveals’ during the story are done at low-key moments that could easily be missed. There’s plenty of subtext and political allusions in the story, some of which may have passed me by, but Eskew takes current-day hot topics such as the Black Lives Matter movement and the rise of the alt-right and weaves them into the Judge Dredd universe, viewing the Justice Department through the eyes of a person of colour. Eskew uses this under-represented perspective to deliver a story that really stands out from the crowd, and demonstrates the importance of diversity – both within the stories and the writers who create them. As evidenced from the success of Black Panther, Wonder Woman and now Captain Marvel, there is an appetite for more diverse protagonists to be brought to the public eye.

Eskew implements an interesting dual narrative structure throughout the novel, with what appears to be two disparate stories – but midway through they converge to create a strong central plot line. The chapters which focused on Aaliyah Monroe were the weakest element for me, partly because I was more invested in Judge Jones’ time as a Cadet and his hunt for the sophisticated weaponry infiltrating the criminal underbelly. While I understand that those chapters fleshed out Aaliyah as a secondary character, I struggled to connect and engage with those initial installments until it became clear that the narratives were going to join together. Again, Eskew’s narrative can be somewhat complicated, flirting with flashbacks and non-linear storytelling to deliver a Pulp Fiction-esque story that requires a bit of work to fully appreciate. It wasn’t impossible to follow, but it may put off more casual readers who aren’t willing to read between the lines and pick up on the implications of Eskew’s words.

When the Light Lay Still” is an impressive novel, and undeniably well-written. Charles J Eskew gets given the opportunity to tell a Judge Dredd story with a very different protagonist, and he shines a light in a corner of the Justice Department rarely explored in the comics. This is mature storytelling, both in terms of narrative structure and the themes within, and I found myself really enjoying the ride. While the story seems initially to be heading towards an inevitable outcome, Eskew pulls out some twists in the tale towards the end that are both shockingly brutal and grin-inducingly effective. While some might be put off by the lack of familiarity to this vision of the Justice Department, I recommend that readers give this novel a chance and read it through to the end. Challenging at times, yet extremely rewarding in the end, “When the Light Lay Still” finally creates a well-developed black protagonist for the Judge Dredd universe to be proud of.

Score – ★★★

Judges – “When The Light Lay Still” is available as an eBook from Amazon Kindle, or collected in paperback format alongside two other adventures as the Judges: Volume One Omnibus, also available on Amazon.

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