Steel Crow Saga – Everybody’s Got Problems

51re9unfc2blWell 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
-Andrew

The Rage of Dragons – Little Too Much Rage, Not Enough Dragons

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Here we have another of The Quill to Live dark horses for 2019, a very promising debut book called The Rage of Dragons, by Evan Winter. This book was pitched to me as “Gladiator meets Game of Thrones” which immediately perked up my interest – and I jumped in as soon as I could, thanks to a review ARC that the lovely people at Orbit sent over in exchange for an honest review. At the end of the day, I think that their description is fairly apt – this book does have a lot of the pulse-pounding arena fighting of Gladiator and the clever political machinations of Game of Thrones, both of which make the book a lot of fun. The Rage of Dragon’s problem is it doesn’t have much more beyond these two qualities.

The plot of RoD is best experienced knowing as little as possible. The book portions out world building and story developments sparingly, preferring to keep you in the dark. It works pretty well and Winter does a great job keeping the reader curious about what will happen next. The back of the book does a good job with the story blurb, but here is a brief summary of what is good to know going in:

The book follows the fate of the Omehi people as they flee an unknown scourge in their homeland. The prologue of the book sees them arriving as settlers on a new frontier with nowhere left to turn. However, this new land is not uninhabited and Winter tells us of “savages” who call it home do not take kindly to having their lands invaded. Thus begins a war of attrition between the Omehi refugees and the native savages of this tropical land. The book then jumps almost two hundred years later, where we see the Omehi have established a foothold and rudimentary society in the new land. They have managed to survive this long in an endless war through the power of their ‘gifted’. One in every two thousand women has the power to call down dragons and one in every hundred men is able to magically transform himself into a bigger, stronger, faster killing machine.

Everyone else in the Omehi are considered footmen in this endless war and are trained to spend their blood serving the greater good of their people. A man’s status in their world is related to their ability to fight. Our protagonist, gift-less Tau, knows all this, but he has a plan of escape. He’s going to get himself injured and get out early. However, when almost everyone he knows is brutally murdered he dedicates himself to becoming the greatest warrior in the land and seek vengeance no matter the cost.

The book spends 90% of its time in Tau’s head, with only brief forays into other characters in the name of world building. The story has many elements of a “magical school” story, with the majority of the page space being devoted to Tau’s training and lessons. The first quarter of the book flashes out what typical life for the Omehi is like, and the rest is about Tau going from zero to hero. This elongated training montage involves an enormous amount of fighting, often one on one. This book is bursting at the seams with fight scenes, and if you aren’t into action sequences you are going to have a bad time. The good news is that Winter is an excellent action writer – the combat is often gripping and invigorating. If you think combat is the pinnacle of fantasy writing you are going to love this book. The problem I had with The Rage of Dragons is that there isn’t enough substance to the characters and world building to accompany the fighting.

Tau isn’t a bad character, but he’s also not particularly deep. He doesn’t really think things through or have long term goals and it makes it hard to see the bigger picture in the book. He feels like he is being battered by the winds of fate and it can make the progression of the plot and story feel jittery and hard to be invested in. He is hard to identify with on anything other than a surface level.

The real issues I had with this book are in the world building – and they are many. The first problem is that the book is touted as an African fantasy, but feels more like a recolored European romp. The cast is entirely black, which I like, but the culture, magic, and attitudes of the characters feel directly transposed from any of the hundreds of traditional European fantasy books you can find in the genre. The book is really not great to women – at all. Omehi people claim to be a class based society led by women and one where men as seen as the lesser gender. We get to spend a good ten pages with the first queen of the people and see her do some absolutely amazing stuff. However, once Tau gets behind the wheel all of that is dropped harder than the writing quality in season 8 of Game of Thrones. Every woman that Tau interacts with in this book is a tool to give him praise, or someone to be murdered, and usually raped, to rally the reader to Tau’s cause. It makes the “ruled by women” claim feel paper thin and left a bad taste in my mouth. Additionally, the world feels over the top brutal – to the point where it overshoots grimdark and moves into edgy. Everyone is murdered for the slightest offense, life is garbage every waking moment, and the only purpose of 99% of the population is to die in the name of a nameless cause the reader doesn’t understand for a long time. The magic is interesting, but extremely confusing because the magic system is tied directly into the plot which is kept intentionally nebulous. Finally, the politics of the area are exciting and do a really good job of creating moments of tension, but they also feel archaic and unnatural in the setting.

The Rage of Dragons has some issues, but is a mix of good and bad. I feel that the world is underdeveloped and could have benefited from a little less time fighting and a little more time fleshing out the white space and trimming the grim brutality. On the other hand, the book is an action movie wet dream, with tons of amazing sequences and a satisfying growth arc that takes a young hero from nobody to somebody. Whether you think you would like this book is up to you, I would recommend you think about how much you like fight scenes and how important world building is to you when deciding to pick it up. Despite my issues with it, I still think I am going to pick up the sequel as Winter did a great job of capturing my curiosity and kept me reading. I just hope that some of the problems I had with book one are less pronounced in the sequels.

Rating: The Rage of Dragons – 5.0/10
-Andrew