I knew I would love Steel Crow Saga by Paul Krueger from the book’s very first scene, not even five minutes into the audiobook. A character is moping because the boy he has a crush on is interested in a girl, and his younger sister brightly reassures him, “But you can like both! I know kids at school who like both!”
But the book’s extremely good LGBT+ representation not the only reason I continued to love this book the more I listened to it. Hell, no. It has amazing CHARACTERS. Strong THEMES. Outstanding WORLDBUILDING.
But that’s not all. It also has FASHION. And FOOD. And WORDS. Lots and lots of good ones.
And, like all good books, it will give you FEELZ. So, so many feelz.
My goal with this review is to convince you to go read it for yourself. Whether you go bug your local librarian for it, support your local bookstore, grab it from a big box store or online retailer, or listen to the audiobook like I did, I don’t care. Go gitchu a copy so we can nerd out about it together.
Oh, and I should mention, this post has no affiliate links, and I did not receive a free advance copy for review. I’m writing this book because I want, no, need, other people to go read it so we can squee about it together.
And because that is my goal, I’m going to try to write a spoiler-free review. Maybe in the future I’ll write a spoiler-filled review so that you can know precisely what made me squee the most.
For now, though, you can read my spoiler-free squees. So, without further ado, here are the TOP 5 THINGS I loved about Steel Crow Saga.
There are four protagonists in Steel Crow Saga: Tala, a soldier with a secret; Jimuro, the crown prince of a recently-crumbled empire; Xiulan, twenty-eighth princess of a neighboring kingdom; and Lee, a thief with pretty much nothing to lose. Tala has been tasked with escorting Prince Jimuro back to his country’s capital safely, while Xiulan recruits Lee into trying to kidnap the prince. She wants to present Jimuro as a gift to her father in order to win his favor and perhaps a future seat on her own throne.
Each of these characters is a fully realized creation, with their own beliefs, goals, interests, and flaws. They have distinct personalities, which are reflected in their mannerisms, their internal conflicts, and even their dialogue. And despite their flaws—or because of them?—I found myself rooting for each and every one of them, even though most of them are literally working against each other throughout most of the book.
What’s more, as I mentioned before, these and other characters in the book represent a wide spectrum of genders and sexualities in a way that felt natural and not at all tokenizing.
Author Paul Krueger has described Steel Crow Saga as Pokémon meets Fullmetal Alechemist. And it is definitely that, but it’s also so much more (with no shade meant to either Pokémon or FMA).
It’s a fantasy epic in a world very much but also not at all like our own. The book opens almost immediately after the once-again sovereign nations of Sanbu, Shang, and Dahal have joined forces to overthrow the colonialist rule of the Tomodanese Empire. Each of these four nations—as well as the still-subjugated people of Jeongson—have their own distinct cultures, beliefs, customs, languages, and prejudices.
Krueger paints this world—these worlds—with a thousand tiny brush strokes, small details that make for a gorgeous bigger picture, like a Monet or a Van Gogh. Cars don’t work the same way in Tomoda as they do in Shang. Tala, a Sanbuna, repeatedly laments the lack of coffee in Tomoda throughout much of the book; the Tomodanese are tea-drinkers. The cultures blend and clash in other ways, as well—in greeting customs, in fashion, and, perhaps most interestingly, in food. Don’t read this book while hungry.
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.
Which brings me to my third favorite thing about this book:
There’s no way around it, Steel Crow Saga is about empire, and the long, slow, painful process of decolonization. And not just at the macro level, though two of the four main characters are royals whose countries have a history of colonization and the other two are members of colonized nations, only one of which has been recently liberated.
Steel Crow Saga is also about unlearning the internalized biases and personal prejudices that are one of the most harmful tools of empire. It’s also about responsibility, both on an institutional and an individual scale. And on a more personal level, it’s about forgiveness.
I wish I could be more specific in this review about what I mean when I say, “Krueger does words good.” But I listened to the audiobook, and I’m not in the habit of bookmarking audio segments in Audible, though after listening to this book, I wish I were. But Paul Krueger does words so good that I’m planning on getting at least one text version of the book. I’d prefer print, both because the cover art is divine and so that I can shove it into other people’s hands to make them read it. But since the closest all-English bookstore is a half hour away, I may just go ahead and get it on Kindle now and then buy a print version once I visit the States in December.
What I’m saying is, I’d like to be able to share the specific sentences that made me literally pause the audiobook just to whisper, “Damn, that was good,” to myself while my spouse eyed me with raised eyebrows, but I can’t. At least not yet.
Whoo, doggy, the feelz. And boy, do I mean all of them. Steel Crow Saga is a roller coaster of emotions from start to finish, in the absolute best way possible. Hope, despair, betrayal, guilt, joy, sorrow, that little hitch in your stomach when you haven’t quite figured out you like someone yet but they do something and it just hits you in that way—Steel Crow Saga’s got it all.
Let me put it this way. I am not ashamed to say I cried in public a little bit as I listened to this book, and I’m also not ashamed to say I outright sobbed at the end, awkwardly and silently because my spouse was on a video call with his adviser in the other room and I didn’t want to disrupt them. I couldn’t help the very loud sniffles, though, so maybe I should have just wailed.
And I think that’s all I can give you without being too spoiler-y. I’ve also droned on for almost 1500 words now, so I’ll start to wrap things up. As a bonus, though, I want to give you the sixth thing I really loved about Steel Crow Saga:
Krueger has been open about a few of the book’s references—Pokémon and FMA, obviously—but those aren’t the only two IPs he pays homage to in the book. And each one I encountered was so delightful, I laughed out loud when I heard it. The first time I heard one, I was like, “Wait, did he just—” but by the second one, I knew it was intentional. Maybe there were more, too, that I didn’t catch, which is another reason I’m so eager to give the book a re-read.
All right! What about you? Have you read Steel Crow Saga yet? If not—what are you waiting for? Let me know in the comments!