Review: STEEL CROW SAGA by Paul Krueger

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

I’m just gonna say up front that I adored this book and would straight up die for every single one of these characters. There are magical animal companions, LGBTQ folks literally everywhere, shadepacting (you want to know what that is right?) and OMG all of the feels. I actually cried. STEEL CROW SAGA is delightful and emotional, a true masterclass in character relationships and an antidote to the stale, crusty, straight white fantasy that has dominated for so long. It makes me truly hopeful for the future of our wonderful genre.

So what and who is it about?

Tala is a soldier in the army of the newly-liberated Sanbuna Republic. She’s an orphan whose parents were killed by occupying Tomodanese forces and now that the war is over she’s tasked with protecting the man who will lead the country that oppressed her people for so long. Jimuro is heir to the Mountain Throne of Tomoda and since his own mother’s death, also the de facto leader of the country. Xiulan is a Shang princess, albeit an out-of-favour one, designated a distant 28th in line to the throne. An eccentric scholar and officer in Shang’s highest police force, she plans to kidnap Jimuro herself, as a means of securing her father’s favour and ascending to the throne. To this end she recruits Lee, a petty-but-accomplished thief with commitment issues but a buried heart of gold.

The world and setting of STEEL CROW SAGA is rich and detailed and there’s a lot of names, titles and countries to absorb quite early on. This did distract from the narrative a little bit, but honestly I didn’t care; I loved it even and just found myself wide-eyed and absorbed by the magic that was unfolding before my eyes. From the delightfully endearing animal companions many characters bond with through the magic of shadepacting, to the skilfully-delivered and complex political landscape of postcolonial Tomoda, everything about the book just sucked me in.

The world of the book is an Asian-inspired, fantastical pseudo-modern setting, where rudimentary firearms exist alongside electricity and motor cars powered by combustion engines. And while the people of Sanbuna and Shang practise shadepacting, the Tomodanese are renowned for the art of metalpacting, the magical practice of channelling their essence into metal objects like ships and cars and bullets, allowing them to manipulate objects without the need for a power source. It’s this power that enabled them to dominate and colonise the rest of the world for so long before the events of the book. Claysad wrote a great review of STEEL CROW SAGA over on her blog, where she says this about the sheer imagination and level of detail in the world of STEEL CROW SAGA:

One of the biggest ways that these cultures differ is their use of magic. The way Krueger describes these magical systems and the ways the magic looks and feels is magical in and of itself.
The magic of the peoples of Sanbu and Shang is called shade pacting. A shade pact is a magical agreement between a person and an animal wherein each being promises something to the other in return for a piece of their soul. The animal becomes the person’s lifelong companion, living inside them until they are called.
The people of Tomoda find shade pacting to be… problematic, to put it lightly. Their magic is called metal pacting. They are able to manipulate metal in a number of magical ways—like heating it to make it hotter or moving or guiding it through space. The Dahali, meanwhile, manipulate magic more directly, casting hexbolts made of soul energy.
These distinct, unique modes of magic are deeply entwined in their respective cultures and, in universe, have been used in more than one way to colonize and subjugate—but also to revolt and rebel.

You should totally read Claysad’s whole review by the way, it’s about 28x better than this one – click here for more Steel Crow love.

While the world, politics and setting are all fantastic, they serve the much grander purpose of providing the backdrop for the magical relationships of these four wonderful characters to grow and develop. At the beginning of the book Tala, Jimuro, Xiulan and Lee all have long-established and deeply-rooted reasons to hate each other and yet, as the story unfolds, we watch as they come to understand each other and the role they each have to play in making the world a better place. It’s far from plain sailing though. They all make mistakes. They hurt each other. Most of the time are actually working against each other and yet I was still rooting for all of them to succeed. But what this book does so well is show the power of the true desire to make amends and the knowledge that real redemption can never be expected or presumed, but must be worked for and earned through meaningful action.

All in all, this is a book the world needs. A book where LGBTQ folks just are, who exist in the world without having to justify their place in it, who aren’t defined by their trauma and instead are fully-realised characters with hopes and dreams and goals. It’s a book with a nuanced exploration of colonialism, of it’s social impact as well as the psychological effects it imposes on the colonised and coloniser alike. It’s a book that does all this with exceptional depth of character and a portrayal of some beautiful interpersonal relationships that will make you feel some feelings. Please go and read it, you’ll thank me for it 🙂

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