Well let’s get this out of the way early: Steel Crow Saga, by Paul Krueger, feels like someone sat down and tried to combine the best parts of Pokemon and Avatar: The Last Airbender, and did an admirable job. A lot of how you will feel about this book is how you react to the last sentence. If this concept fills you with excited glee, you are probably going to love it to pieces. If this concept fills you with trepidation, you will likely find the book to be a bit lukewarm. To be fair, distilling this impressive book down to a single sentence is an injustice, so let’s dig more into the meat of this interesting story and see what it has to offer.
Steel Crow Saga is the first book in a series of the same name and follows four different POVs in political intrigue seasoned with a lot of action. Our leads are Lee, Jimuro, Xiulan, and Tala, and everybody has issues they need to resolve. Each of them comes from a different nation that represents a different piece of the world – each with a different real-world Asian allegory. Tala is a soldier from Sanbu (Phillippines), Jimuro is a prince from Tomoda (Japanese), Xiulan is a detective from Shang (China), and Lee is a thief from Jeongson (Korea). I found the inspirations from the countries tasteful and interesting, but as a Caucasian American I am absolutely not the right person to weigh in on that and I recommend seeking other sources if this is a concern for you. The book takes place right after an all-out war between the nations. Tomoda launched a campaign of dominance that successfully subjugated all the other countries, however, after a harsh occupation they were eventually beaten back and conquered themselves by Shang and Sanbu. The story focuses on transporting the last living royal of Tomoda back to his country to assume the throne in the hopes that all the countries might be able to put their conflicts to bed and begin moving forward. Unfortunately, peace is not what everyone wants and this relatively simple task quickly becomes complicated and potentially deadly.
Okay, now that you have a general gist of the plot, let’s talk about the pros and cons. First pro: the world-building. The reimagining of these Asian countries is a lot of fun. Each nation has a good mix of real-world culture and new spins that make the fantasy counterparts take a healthy step away from their inspirations. The book focuses heavily on two different magic styles native to different countries. The Tomodese can Steelpact, an ability gained through their perfect attenuation with nature, allowing them to put pieces of their souls into metal and breathe life into it. This allows them to be leaps and bounds ahead of their rivals in technological advancements, have swords that cut through anything like a lightsabre, and have the best marksmen around with their firearms. On the other hand, the Shang and the Sanbu have pokemon. They can pact with a single animal of almost any kind to turn them into giant energy versions of the creature that can be summoned and dismissed at will. Both magics are pretty awesome. In general, I liked the world-building a lot. However, I felt there were a few holes and gaps in the world Krueger showed us, even though I got the sense that he was saving them for later books, not that he hadn’t developed the missing areas.
Up next is the characters, who get mixed marks. On a personal introspective level, the cast is all fantastic. All four leads are all complex and interesting individuals that you will rapidly find yourself growing attached too. All of them have different issues they are dealing with and its very rewarding to watch how their very different personalities grapple with these difficult subjects. In addition, the supporting characters all have memorable quicks that did a great job sticking them into my memory so that most of them remain fresh in my mind weeks after finishing the book. Unfortunately, this is where my praise now must turn to criticism, as the chemistry between the characters is…. rough. While I really enjoyed the introspective parts, many character interactions often felt tonally inconsistent, a little too simple, and repetitive. The table stakes for characters in this book are that they have experienced the horrors of war. But, a good half of the dialogue between all the characters in this story feels like it can be boiled down to fingerpointing. You are shown very quickly that all sides of the war did some horrible things, but then you have to listen to the characters repeatedly say “no, your side was worse” over and over again for the majority of the book. It is exhausting and while I understand the desire to explore the topic of post-war devastation to culture and society, the wonderful delicate introspection the characters do inside their own head was massively overpowered by the back and forth accusations in the dialogue.
The plot was also a bit messy. While the book starts out strong with a clear goal and obstacles to overcome, it seems to rapidly descend into a series of disconnected set pieces where really cool magic and action happens. And I do want to emphasize, there are some really cool magic and action. However, I often found myself not understanding why, where, and how some things were happening. The antagonist is also frankly a bit of a disappointment. The set up for the villain is great, but the reveal and climax felt like they didn’t really match the scope of the rest of the story. There are some great twists though, and while I didn’t love the plot as a collective there were a number of pieces of it that I enjoyed immensely in isolation.
Steel Crow Saga is a book with a lot of things to offer and a fun concept that just falls short of being stellar. The world is a joy to explore, I love the characters, the action is exciting, and the magic is both original and nostalgic at the same time. It just needed a slightly more directed plot with some better character chemistry and it would have been one of my top books of 2019. Instead, I think it is a good book that has a lot of potential. I will definitely continue the series and look forward to seeing if Krueger can elevate it a bit in the next chapter.
Rating: Steel Crow Saga – 7.0/10