Book Review: Steel Crow Saga by Paul Krueger

I read the Steel Crow Saga in February, and it has taken me until mid-May to finally figure out how to write up all my thoughts. I loved the book for about a thousand different reasons, including the mesh and depth of cultures and histories, the swath of Asian and anime inspirations, the wonderful characters (including several LGBTQ+ and badass women), and… I could just keep going on.

I’ll talk about a couple key points for the sake of brevity and because I don’t think I’d have the words to make justice of all my thoughts.

First off, some more about the book:

Four destinies collide in a unique fantasy world of war and wonders, where empire is won with enchanted steel and magical animal companions fight alongside their masters in battle.

A soldier with a curse
Tala lost her family to the empress’s army and has spent her life avenging them in battle. But the empress’s crimes don’t haunt her half as much as the crimes Tala has committed against the laws of magic… and her own flesh and blood.

A prince with a debt
Jimuro has inherited the ashes of an empire. Now that the revolution has brought down his kingdom, he must depend on Tala to bring him home safe. But it was his army who murdered her family. Now Tala will be his redemption—or his downfall.

A detective with a grudge
Xiulan is an eccentric, pipe-smoking detective who can solve any mystery—but the biggest mystery of all is her true identity. She’s a princess in disguise, and she plans to secure her throne by presenting her father with the ultimate prize: the world’s most wanted prince.

A thief with a broken heart
Lee is a small-time criminal who lives by only one law: Leave them before they leave you. But when Princess Xiulan asks her to be her partner in crime—and offers her a magical animal companion as a reward—she can’t say no, and soon finds she doesn’t want to leave the princess behind.

 

This band of rogues and royals should all be enemies, but they unite for a common purpose: to defeat an unstoppable killer who defies the laws of magic. In this battle, they will forge unexpected bonds of friendship and love that will change their lives—and begin to change the world.

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Doesn’t that sound amazing? Truthfully, as intriguing as the blurb is, that’s not why I picked up the book in the first place. I was interested in the book because it’s marketed as a mixture of Pokemon and Avatar the Last Airbender (which is even more awesome than the blurb, right?!), though, after reading the book, I don’t quite think Steel Crow Saga held up to that expectation.

And I definitely don’t mean that in a bad way. The book was wondrous and magical in its own right, just the comparison seemed loose at best.

Steel Crow Saga is a wonderfully rich Asian-themed fantasy with four distinct nations that more or less parallel with Japan, China, Korea, Philippines, and India. I can’t speak to the authenticity of representation in the book as a voice of authority, but I found it to be culturally rich.

On that account, as well as that a significant portion of the story is spent travelling, you could compare it to Avatar: The Last Air Bender, however, the similarities to Avatar don’t run deeper than that. There’s no elemental magic, the group dynamics are much different (in that the main characters are only together in groups of two until the end), and because the story takes place after a war, there isn’t really a big baddie that the group is going after (although there is a bad guy, as hinted by the blurb).

Similarly, the comparison to Pokemon didn’t ring true to me because the magical animal companions–or shades, as they’re called in the book–aren’t found in the wild, and for the most part, people can only have one. Of course, Pokemon is much more than finding and battling with pokemon, but I’ll leave it at that.

Still, the novel is excellent for the right type of person. The book takes some inspiration from anime in terms of writing style and world; obvious enough from the Pokemon and Avatar comparisons. Of course, this time, that was all I needed to decide I wanted to read this book, but usually it’s not so simple for me. Anime encompasses many tropes that I don’t believe were meant for the written form. Nonetheless, Steel Crow Saga doesn’t fall into any of the traps I’m familiar with and turned those inspirations into something beautiful and unique.

The depth of the world sung to me at every corner. Every nation utilized their own type of magic that was significant to the values of their distinct cultures. For example, the Tomodanese (based on Japan) value iron, so their magic enhances blades, while the Shang (based on China) value the capacity of a person to link their soul to an animal and nurture that relationship.

Meanwhile, both ideologies are a source of tension between Tomoda and Shang. Tomoda colonized Shang as well as the other nations involved in the story during their quest for more iron, and they, in part, justify their colonization because the believe Shang shadepacting is a type of slavery. This is because the Tomodanese believe animals and humans are of equal importance, and they don’t have pets, they have friends. The division of ideals isn’t clean and you can easily sympathize with both sides, which made the story all the more compelling as it unravelled.

“Captain Maki tells me you fought like a demon in the rebellion, but it was in ravaging my homeland where you really distinguished yourself.” A rhythmic thunk-thunk-thunk told her he was dragging his fingers across his cell’s bars. “You stormed the beaches a Katagawa, watered the trees at Dokoshima with Tomodanese blood, and put torch to Hagane’s beautiful spires? The people of Tomoda will be having nightmares about you for a generation. You and your slave.”

A shudder of rage went through Tala’s entire body at that last word. It was a common enough slur among the Tomodanese, but it always landed extra hard when lashed across Tala’s back.

Her body language had betrayed her, because the prince said, “You object to the term, then? Apologies. What term would you prefer to describe a creature whose will has been overtaken by yours?”

I also found myself drawn to how the book made the connection between culture and food. Every culture has its distinct food preferences, but that’s not something you usually see in fantasy these days (or at least that I’ve noticed to the same degree) because who wants to read about people eating? But the food in Steel Crow Saga acted as a direct link to culture, mirroring the qualities of the different societies and the individual characters’ values as they navigate the cultural landscapes through their journey. I’ve always thought that the connections that can be forged through a shared love and appreciation of food as something distinctly beautiful.

Food is an unspoken gift: You don’t need to share a language to create something for another person that warms their heart and reminds them of home.

The national dish of the Sanbu Islands was adobo: meat, either chicken or pork, stewed in a combination of soy sauce, garlic, pepper, and sugarcane vinegar. It was often joked to be the one thing the ten Sanbu Islands had in common, but even that wasn’t true. Recopes varied from island to island, city to city, even family member to family member. There was only one thing all Sanbunas could actually agree on when it came to adobo: Their ina’s was best.

On other islands, Sanbunas added things like sugar, fried onions, or even coconut milk to their adobo. But Tala’s ina was a purist, and insisted that anyone who needed the sweetness to temper the sharp sauce might as well be eating bland Tomodanese food. For her, all adobo needed were those four ingredients: vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, pepper. When she cooked it, the whole house was filled with an aroma so hearty, even breathing it in felt fattening.

It was that smell that brought Tala back to life.

The characters in Steel Crow Saga often felt like they would leap of the page; their dialogue felt raw and real, their narratives unique and dripping with character. I particularly liked Lee, who is the small-time criminal of the four main characters.

Her interactions with the other characters are brilliant; she always has something snarky and clever to say, and she backs up her snarky and clever words with equal action.

I discussed Steel Crow Saga as part of the WriteHive fantasy month last week, but looking back on it now, there’s one thing I neglected to mention when it comes to character development in the book. Some of you may know, I’m a participant in Kriti Khare’s #armedwithabingo. I ended up marking Steel Crow Saga off under the prompt for “a book about friendship/family” because each character had a strong link to family as a part of their plot and/or character arc.

I won’t discuss that in too much detail for fear of spoilers, but the dynamics between the four main characters and their families was vastly different and well-leveraged to develop the story. Usually when I read books, it’s not something I notice because family tends to fall into the background unless it’s somehow relevant to the plot. In this case, family often is important to the plot, but not for each character, and even then, for different reasons.

Finally, I can’t talk about Steel Crow Saga without a brief discussion about the connotations of colonization within the text. The story is weaved in a world wrought with the oppressed and oppressors, very much like our world. War itself is an act of subjugation. But although war and colonialism are evident in the history and interactions between Tomoda and Shang, the real dirtiness comes out, I feel, in how the larger forces interact with minorities. In Steel Crow Saga, that story comes out in Lee’s perspective, and to some degree, Tala’s as well.

Lee, a poor Jeongsonese woman who’s relied on crime to survive, is often subject to racism and stereotyping, and treated as less-than-human for simply being Jeongsonese and because of her country’s unfortunate domination by Shang and, in the past, Tomoda. Like many colonized nations, the Jeongsonese have had many of their rights stripped away by their oppressors, their culture whittled away, and forced to conform to the ideologies of their colonizers while simutaneously receiving little benefit.

For example, the Jeongsonese are currently under Shang rule, but they are forbidden from shadepacting. Magic is reserved only for those of Shang descent.

Although the effects of war and colonization are apparent in the construction of world in Steel Crow Saga and the trauma experienced by the main characters and those who surround them, the novel ultimately uses this history to push for something more. Historically, and as shown in Steel Crow Saga, the oppressed often rise against their oppressors in turn, perpetuating a cycle of violence that instills future generations with bone-deep, multi-faceted hate that can’t be washed away with false promises and sweet words.

In the aftermath in the war and Shang victory (this isn’t a spoiler because the novel takes place after the war), many people wish to slaughter the Tomodanese and make them pay tenfold for their crimes committed against Shang, Jeongsan, Sanbuna, and Dahal. That is, in effect, the motivation of several main characters at the start of the novel, an outcome which others are determined to prevent, regardless of their personal views of the Tomodanese.

However, Steel Crow Saga does not take the easy route to vengeance and violence, instead spinning a narrative of unity and collaboration, one that allows for both the oppressed and oppressor to work together against a colonial past.

That is the beauty and magic of this story.

You can check out Steel Crow Saga on Goodreads or purchase it on Amazon.

Have you read Steel Crow Saga, or any other Asian fantasy books tackling similar themes?

—Erynn

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