Steel Crow Saga by Paul Krueger
Paul Krueger’s first book, Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge, was a quirky, fun urban fantasy in which magical bartenders saved Chicago from primordial evil. Based on that, I was eager to read his 2019 novel Steel Crow Saga. After I pre-ordered it, I began to read, on Twitter and other places (I follow Krueger on Twitter) that it drew heavily from the tradition of Japanese animation and the series/game Pokémon. Since I’m one of the six people in the continental USA who knows nearly nothing about either of those topics, I began to wonder if I would be the right reviewer for this book. I didn’t need to worry. This 512-page book does draw from Pokémon, gloriously celebrates anime, and it is a thrill-ride from start to finish. There are battles at sea, magical creatures who appear and disappear in great flashes of colored light, runaway trains, thrilling escapes, people who doubt themselves, people who doubt others, political maneuvering, sharp and brilliant banter, and lots of awesome food.
I will be interested in comments by people who are anime and Pokémon experts, because I know that I appreciated about one-tenth of the pop-culture references that fill this story. It didn’t slow my enjoyment of the read at all, but I know aficionados will get much more out of it.
In the aftermath of a revolution and a bloody war, the nation of Tomoda has been overthrown by the nations it had previous subjugated. One member of the Tomodanese royal family, Iron Prince Jumiro, still lives, the captive of guerilla-fighter turned political leader General Erega. Erega plans to return Jumiro to his home island, where he will ascend the throne, and his county will become a client state to a coalition of Sanbuna, the Shang Empire, and the Dahali. There are people who want to see Jumiro dead before that happens. Some want to abduct him to use as a bargaining chip, and some want to free him from his captors and make him the figurehead of a freedom-fighter movement within Tomoda. As this thrill-ride story unfolds, we meet several players:
Tala, an embittered Sanbunan soldier haunted by her past
Xiulan, an investigator for the Shang Empire who harbors a secret
Lee, a Jeonsonese thief with a gift for finding people
Jumiro, the captive prince.
But, you say, is there magic? Oh, yes, there’s magic. The people of Shang and the Sanbunans practice shadepacting, merging with an animal. The magic process creates a creature that appears when called, corporeal and three-dimensional. The Tomodanese practice metalpacting, the ability to manipulate metals. For example, they have engineless cars. The Tomodanese consider shadowpacting slavery, but as we see it, we realize that the relationship of humans to their shades is more reciprocal, and more complicated. Each culture has things which are forbidden in the magic, and misconceptions about each other’s magic. A large part of this story is about our characters learning about each other’s gifts.
Krueger takes some risks in his story, and they pay off. Some are pretty mild. The warring nations are clearly drawn from societies in our world; Japan and China, for example, even to the language and the names. If you’re playing in the world of Japanese animation, that only makes sense. The world-building back-story is not dense and detailed; there is exactly enough here to support the complicated, fast-paced story Krueger is telling. Then he takes bigger risks. Some of these characters are seriously unlikeable at the beginning (I’m looking at you, Prince Jumiro.) If my growing dislike of Jumiro when I first met him as a captive guarded by Tala hadn’t been interrupted by a terrifying magical battle at sea, where we first meet the shades, I might have set Steel Crow Saga aside. Jumiro is the character who grows the most during the course of this story, and he has the most growth to make. Krueger expertly captured that.
The characters are forced to confront their prejudices, but Krueger is a student of human nature. Jumiro, for instance, doesn’t experience a sudden flash of enlightening and suddenly become woke. He has insights, he starts to think about them, then he backslides. Tala, who seems admirable in the beginning, backslides too, as we learn more about things she has done that are considered abominations by her people. They are terrible things, but we understand why she’s done them. Even the powerful magical villain has a compelling motivation for his actions.
Xiulan struggles with self-doubt throughout the story. By the way, the first appearance of Xiulan on the page is a vivid homage to anime that even I recognized. She is the most “anime” character in the book, even more so than the prince. Another great pleasure of this book is the lush physical descriptions: Xiulan, the masks of the Steel Cicadas, the colors of uniforms, the buildings, the landscapes.
From Tala, Xiulan and Lee to secondary characters like General Erega, Jumiro’s mother, and even a scheming princess from the Shang Empire, women characters are powerful, strong and complicated, and they hold center stage for much of the book.
And the food. Food is important here; it’s one more source of prejudice and colonial oppression; it’s one more reminder of home (in some cases a home that no longer exists) for various characters. Krueger writes food extraordinarily well. Mushrooms appear so frequently that I am sure they are an in-joke that I didn’t get.
Steel Crow Saga resolves the personal quests of each character, and one of the larger political issues, in a way that is realistic. Even Jumiro understands that one fine speech does not make up for the decades of oppression perpetrated by his people. He understands that he won’t be a popular ruler. Still, he has chosen to set his feet on the right path… and it’s going to be a hard one. Tala is finding a way to forgive herself for choices she has made. There is a shadow over the growing relationship between Lee and Xiulan, but we have seen the power of these two characters, and I’m confident they will survive.
I do sometimes give a book five stars for the pure enjoyment value, which I could do here, but Steel Crow Saga uses action, adventure and magic to delve pretty deeply into oppression, colonialism and prejudice. The characters don’t always do the right thing; sometimes they just do the best they can. I highly recommend Steel Crow Saga. And I really hope Krueger follows it up with Steel Crow Saga: The Cookbook.
I listened to the audio edition of Steel Crow Saga which was produced by Random House Audio. It’s narrated by Kim Mai Guest who gives a very nice performance.
I agree with everything Marion has said about Steel Crow Saga. It’s unique and exciting. Krueger’s female characters are strong and his exploration of colonialism, occupation, and prejudice make this sometimes cartoonish story quite impactful. I also appreciate Krueger’s sense of humor.
I had trouble connecting with the characters. In my head I understood their histories and motivations, but they didn’t feel fully formed to me. They are modeled after two-dimensional anime characters, so this may have been intentional, but I unfortunately perceived them as two-dimensional. I love an action-packed, fast-paced thriller, but I also want to connect to the characters.
It may or may not be helpful to note that I am not a fan of anime or Pokémon. But I was still very much entertained and impressed by Steel Crow Saga. It’s an enjoyable fantasy thriller and I look forward to reading more of Paul Krueger’s work.
Kat, since you are a foodie and a cocktail fan, I think you’d enjoy LAST CALL AT THE NIGHTSHADE LOUNGE.
I was a little surprised at how quickly I connected with the characters of Lee and Xiulan.
Vielen Dank für den tollen Artikel.