ETA 20 June 2020:
Following the allegations against Paul Krueger, I am rescinding my support of Steel Crow Saga and the rest of Paul’s books. I believe victims of harassment always, even if the harasser is someone I looked up to and deeply admired.
I have never subscribed to the belief that art can be separated from the artist, and I would be the worst kind of hypocrite if I don’t hold myself and my heroes to that same standard. I urge the rest of Steel Crow Saga fans to consider the courage people needed to muster to come forward, and to retract their support as well.
To the victims, I am deeply sorry for all that you have experienced, and I am also sorry if my outspoken support for Paul resurrected any pain, fear, discomfort, or trauma. I sincerely pray for light and healing for all of you.
A couple of months ago, I was applying for a senior manager position in another company. The head honcho who would be my direct supervisor if I got the job asked me what I looked to do in my spare time. I said that I liked to read, so she asked me what I was currently reading. At the time, I was participating in #SteelCrowReadathon by Shealea, so I said I was reading that. The director asked me what it was about – and that’s how I ended up spending fifteen minutes of a job interview gushing about a book.
(I got the job, by the way.)
Read on to find out what I loved about this amazing five-star read!
Title: Steel Crow Saga
Author: Paul Krueger
Age Range: Adult
Genre: Fantasy, Adventure
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.
Content warnings: Graphic violence, depictions of war, depictions of poverty, colonialism
☕ Quotes ☕
“To share a table with someone is to share everything.”
“It’s so rare to meet a person who actually lives up to their reputation.”
“Forgiveness was a journey, not a choice.”
“When you’re on the worst kind of job, audacity’s the only thing that’ll get you through it: being willing to do something so stupid, there’s no way anyone could see it coming.”
“The wise king is the one who knows he isn’t.”
☕ Plot ☕
As someone that obsessively follows current events and was a political science major in university, I absolutely love books that really handle geopolitics well. And within the first 20 or so pages, I knew that Steel Crow Saga was going to be one of those books. It managed to balance an interesting, intriguing politically-driven plot with a fun, fast-paced anime vibe. I don’t know many authors that can manage this!
Steel Crow Saga begins at the tail-end of a revolution that overthrew the country of Tomoda, which colonized the countries of Dahal, Jeongson, Shang, and the Sanbu Islands. Immediately we are introduced to the four main characters – Tala, Jimuro, Xiulan, and Lee – who all have opposing agendas. Tala, who is Sanbuna, is under orders from her country to take Jimuro, the captured prince of Tomoda, back to his country to assume the throne so that Tomoda can recover and remain a strong enough bulwark to make sure Shang doesn’t become a colonial power as well
(real life Filipino politicians can’t relate). Xiulan, a princess of Shang, hires the Jeongsonese thief Lee to help her take Jimuro from his Sanbuna guards, thinking that presenting the prince to her father, the Crane Emperor, will make him realize her value and declare her his heir.
In and of itself, the motivations of each character would already have made for an excellent plot. But the author stirs the pot even more by adding a strange and fearsome villain: a mysterious man who goes after Jimuro and his Sanbuna guards using dozens of shades, magical animal companions who are bonded to humans and are larger, faster, stronger, and more agile. The terrifying thing is, the magic that allows a human to acquire a shade – called shadepacting – has long ruled that a human soul can only bond with one animal soul. To have multiple shades is an abomination Tala, Jimuro, Xiulan, and Lee have never seen before.
It would have been so easy for this book to be an action-packed adventure, and I honestly still would have loved it. But not only does this book take its readers on hell of a ride, it also takes a long, honest look at the aftermath of war and the effect of colonialism on both the colonizer and the colonized.
In most books that involve a war of some kind, there’s usually a very clear-cut “good guy” and “bad guy”. And while it’s true that ousting a colonizer is very much so a “good guy” thing to do, we’re also shown how the war has negatively affected and ruined the lives of people on both sides. The Tomodanese occupation is without a doubt painted as being wrong, but it also shows the regular Tomodanese citizens suffering in poverty and food shortages as a result of the war. This nuanced portrayal of the ordinary citizens on both sides paints a grim, true picture of the aftermath of war. Literally, the only other media I can think of that did something so nuanced was Avatar: The Last Airbender in its portrayal of ordinary Fire Nation citizens.
We also have a very clear picture of the effect of colonialism from individual perspectives, which allows for a really stark deep-dive look. It’s one thing to discuss the effect on a formerly colonized country’s government, language, economy, cultural practices, etc. It’s another thing to see how the occupation of a foreign power affected people on a personal level. We’re clearly shown how Jimuro and Xiulan – members of a race that considers themselves superior to their former colonies – think that Tomoda and Shang’s occupation of, respectively, Sanbu and Jeongson, was for the benefit of its people. On the other hand, Tala and Lee shoot those beliefs down handily, having experienced loss and hardship firsthand underneath the Tomodanese and the Shang.
But conflict isn’t the only theme this book touches on. Steel Crow Saga also very heavily features commentary on forgiveness and healing, on both an individual level and as an entire country. Its emphasis on working together, looking to the future, and honoring those we have lost raises this book from a simple post-war military fantasy into a truly transcendental tale of empowerment, with a message of cooperation and hope that the book community sorely needs.
☕ Writing ☕
Although inspired by Avatar: The Last Airbender, Pokémon, and other popular animated franchises, Steel Crow Saga‘s worldbuilding is unique and wholly immersive. The story revolves around the five countries, which are fantasy stand-ins for real countries and cultures:
- Sanbu Islands – later renamed the Sanbu Republic after the revolution, inspired by the Philippines
- Tomoda – Imperial Japan
- Dahal – South Asia
- Jeongson – Korea
- Shang – China
Although Paul Krueger has stated in a Social Distance Book Fest panel that he doesn’t do research (lmfao), each of these fictionalized versions of countries were portrayed carefully and sensitively. The histories and descriptions of traditions were fascinating, and in-depth without being a complete infodump. I was easily absorbed into this universe.
The magic system is also one of the most interesting I’ve ever read. I especially liked how Xiulan described it:
“Xiulan had read once that all the world’s known disciplines of magic were fruits hanging from different branches of the human soul. ”
In Sanbu and in Shang, people channeled their souls into animal companions called shades. These were real ordinary animals who, when pacted with humans, became stronger, faster, bigger versions of themselves who reside within their partner humans’ souls and only come out when their names are called (if you’re thinking that sort of sounds like a Pokémon, the similarities are deliberate!). In Tomoda, people could use their souls to manipulate metal. And in Dahal, magic can be used in the form of energy blasts called hexbolts.
But the thing I loved the most about Paul Krueger’s writing was how utterly he infused the essence of being Filipino into it. From tidbits like how an adobo recipe is a deeply personal thing to our usage of the words “hoy” and “tanga”, the devotion to our families and those we consider our families, the gesture of “mano”, every aspect of Tala’s journey was unmistakably Filipino and made me feel so seen. The reference to Tala’s seagoing ancestors and Filipinos’ love for songs and music made me so happy like you wouldn’t believe. Even the commentary in the beginning of how the Sanbuna are notorious jaywalkers (oops) was super relatable. I got so excited identifying the practices, food, expressions, and other cultural norms that I hear and experience day in and day out.
☕ Characters ☕
This book cycles through the POVs of the following main characters:
- Tala – A hardened Sanbuna war veteran with a sarcastic streak a mile wide who loves coffee, tapa, and her country – in that order.
- Jimuro – The captured prince of Tomoda being returned to his country to assume the throne, idealistic, an artist at heart.
- Xiulan – A princess of Shang who wants to stand out amongst her 20+ siblings, lover of detective serials, logical but naive.
- Lee – A thief from Jeongson who follows her own code, with a soft spot for certain naive princesses.
I admit, I sometimes have difficulty following books with a wide cast of characters. Or I sometimes end up preferring one character’s chapters to another. But that was definitely not the case with Steel Crow Saga. Although I profess myself a hardcore Tala fan (listen – coffee, tapa, and patriotism is a cause I can definitely get behind), I found myself rooting for and eager to hear the thoughts of all of the characters.
All four of them went through some serious character growth and development, and each arc was definitely a pleasure to read. Their interactions were also by turns gut-bustingly funny, deeply introspective, or emotional and tear-jerking. I absolutely love the chemistry between Tala and Jimuro, and between Xiulan and Lee. The author basically took the trope of “opposites attract” and infused it with new life and meaning.
A thing I also really liked about this book is how casual it was with its queer rep. It has two sapphic characters, a trans character, a bi character, and a pansexual character, and it’s not a big deal, nor is the entire characterization centered around their queer identity. It’s really nice to see queer characters just be queer in literature without them being reduced to just that queerness, and I feel this was handled really well!
☕ Overall ☕
This book, if you’ll pardon the language, is a fucking powerhouse. It has great and compelling characters, stellar and immersive world-building, evocative writing, and a fast-paced exciting plot. This has got to be one of my all-time favorite books ever and I really need everyone that follows me to read it!
What did you think?
☕ Have you read Steel Crow Saga? What did you think?
☕ Do you think anime-inspired novels work?
☕ What do you think of novels set in a 1920s/1930s-esque era?