Steel Crow Saga, by Paul Krueger is a gorgeous high-fantasy novel, filled with complex and diverse characters and an enthralling plot. Before reading I had heard this was a Pokemon ( which I have grown up on) meets Avatar: The Last Airbender type of novel, and somehow people neglected to mention the obvious and wonderful nods to Full Metal Alchemist!! (One of my favourite Anime’s might I add??) Reading through I definitely could see the influences from Pokemon with the Shades, Avatar and Full Metal Alchemist in the characters and their relationships, I also got an ever so slight feel of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (with the idea of souls) even if this was not a source of inspiration. But, while inspiration and nods to these popular franchises exists, I feel the novel itself is so much more than Pokemon meets Avatar: The Last Airbender – It is incredibly imaginative, highly original and unique, and all in all its own story and should be seen as one.
Also- can we just stop and admire the absolutely gorgeous and creative cover it is just so perfect for this book- so admiration and awe to the designer!
Synopsis: A war started by the Empress leaves devastation in its wake, particularly for the people of Sanbuna. But, the war is over. Tala lost her family to the Empress’s army and attempted to avenge them by becoming a soldier, and now she is tasked with returning the Prince, the son of her enemy, home safely. Tala, however, is also fighting demons of her own, a crime that might be worse than the war.
The Prince, Jimuro, is the only royal left and is to return home and become the Emperor. But on his way home his army of guards are destroyed and he must rely solely on Tala if he wishes to live. With a threat bigger than the conflict between countries, Jimuro has no choice but to trust the woman whose family his army murdered.
Xiulan is an Inspector, clever, controlled and ambitious. Her deductive skills and her witty, pipe-smoking persona wants only one thing – Prince Jimuro.
Lee, a thief who only looks out for herself, is surprised to find a mysterious Inspector needs her help – but her help is never free. In return she wants something the Jeongsonese people have never been granted.
As they all get on with accomplishing their individual tasks, they find themselves drawn together in order to confront and enemy much more fearsome than any other they have known. As violence danger and heart-break lies around the corner, they also find love, honour and loyalty too.
Before I start my review I want to highlight that Steel Crow Saga is listed as Steel Crow Saga (Steel Crow Saga #1) on a lot of sites, but it is a standalone book. Not the start of a series. While I am sure we would all love to see more of these characters, because they’re freaking awesome, the ending to the novel is perfect and ties up everything that needed to be resolved. So please remember it is a standalone.
— Immersive And Emotive —
The Writing And Narrative. Paul Krueger’s writing is incredibly immersive and emotive, it had me hooked right from the start. His writing style is very beautiful, with his descriptions being rather enchanting while simultaneously using more direct and harsh writing to describe horrific or gruesome fights and events. This balance creates a connection with the story, the enchanting descriptions of the characters, their shades or their emotions draw you in and immediately makes you want to know more about them. Similarly, his direct or gruesome descriptions of fights and wounds make you realise the price of war, and makes you worry for the characters themselves. It is a difficult balance to create but Krueger does it extraordinarily well and it truly a master at weaving a story and a narrative. Krueger uses a lot of clever skills to create specific atmospheres ranging from tense, to comical and seems to create them with ease, you feel exactly as you are suppose to. I was truly transported into this world and, despite the horror of the war, I wanted to stay.
The narrative was equally as compelling and quite the risk. The story is told from four main perspectives, being Tala, Lee, Xiulan, and Jimuro (a fifth is used at the start being Dimangan’s- Tala’s brother.) I have read a few stories with multiple narratives, and not all of them could pull it off, but Krueger not only did it like a master, he did it while making me love every perspective I read from. Each character is incredibly unique and from a different country and social class and having an insight into each of them and seeing things there way opened up a whole new dynamic in the story. Each narrative made me feel more connected to the characters, allowed me to understand each of their points of view on the war, their magic and on each other and caused me to have a more in-depth view of the world Krueger has built. The gamble of a multiple narrative paid off in this book and worked seamlessly without confusion.
— Unique And Engaging —
The Plot. As I said previously, there is a lot of influence from Pokemon, Avatar and FMA (I wont go into details about how these are used in order to avoid spoilers but it is amazing) but despite this the plot is wonderfully unique and engaging. Krueger manages to pour so much of his heart and soul into this book and its story, particularly through the inspirations, while simultaneously creating something so original and wildly imaginative. The first thing that surprised me was that this is based after the war, not before or during (though we see a small snippet of both). This surprised me because war is a highly used tool in order to add action to a story, and yet this story has so much action and thrill despite being after the war. This was a risky but clever route to take and it was worth it as the idea of the war being over is incredibly significant, particularly for Tala.
Moreover, the plot plays on the countries differences, magic uses and prejudices. This all combines to create a well paced, action-packed story with a clever balance of comedy, wit, and emotion. The story is relatively unpredictable and extremely absorbing. While the book is relatively long, it is worth it and Krueger doesn’t waste a second of it. Each part is relevant and interesting and definitely worth the 500+ pages.
The story is relatively character driven, with each narrative following a different, yet connected, path but still manages to have an intriguing plot with enough action to keep up the pace and interest.
At it’s core, the story is about self-acceptance and self-confidence but also about prejudice and overcoming those stereotypical beliefs we have of one and other by attempting to actually understand our differences. It is about unity, cohesion, friendship, love, family and acceptance. I loved how the story follows a path of understanding those different from yourself and accepting that those differences does not inherently mean they are bad.
— Well Crafted And Clever —
The Magic And World-Building. Now this world and it’s magic are incredibly well-crafted and clever. Let’s start with the world. There are multiple countries with its own inhabitants including the Sanbuna’s, Shang’s, Jeongsonese, Tomodanese, and the Dahali. Each have their own proficiencies when it comes to magic; Sanuban’s and Shang’s use Shadepacting (splitting their souls with a chosen animal companion), the Tomodanese can metalpact (use metal to their will), the Dahali can use Hexbolt’s, and the Jeongsonese can shadepact, but are not allowed to do so. So, the differences in magic cause conflict between the countries, the Tomodanese believe shadepacting is slavery. While those who shadepact disagree and call the Tomodanese ‘Steelhounds’ believing them to be as cold and rigid as the steel they worship. This causes a lot of conflict through the novel and is interesting to watch play out.
The magic systems are very complex and encompasses rituals an differences even between those who use the same form of magic. It is an incredible magic system and very interesting. There is even a sense of realism in terms of magic having setbacks, shadepacting and metalpacting eventual renders the user weak and they have to recuperate before using it again.
The dynamic of the world and magic systems is incredibly individual and makes for a wonderful story and character development. Seeing both sides to the beliefs allows you to draw your own opinions and you get to watch as the characters realise just how rigid their own views of each other are. I adored this magic system and the world in which it lives and found it to be so imaginative and well crafted.
— Diverse And Complex —
The Characters. As I previously said, the story is about acceptance and the characters are used extraordinarily well in order to show this. Every character is flawed, they believe their views are correct and have prejudices against the other countries inhabitants, but at heart they believe they are doing what needs to be done. Each character goes through a brilliant arc of development and you watch as they overcome their prejudices and understand that different does not mean bad. But they also develop to accept themselves as who they are with their flaws, with their losses and with their changing beliefs.
The characters in this novel are so incredibly diverse with a cast filled with POC’s, different sexualities, different social classes, different genders and different abilities. There is so much representation and it is so natural, and well crafted it is wonderful to see. The story itself deals with these differences subtly but wonderfully. There is little prejudice in the world against sexuality, unless you are royal as the need to procure an heir is significant, and gender itself is of little issue, while a character believes their gender is viewed negatively by some, it is made clear this is not the case and he is widely accepted for who he is. While I acknowledge that I am not a part of most of the minority groups represented in the novel, I do try to advocate for the diversity and was so happy to see just how much there was in this novel and I hope everyone else gets to see it too!
Tala. Her character is headstrong, clever and determined. She is a soldier, she is disciplined and will not hesitate to fight for what she believes in. But, she is also haunted, heart-broken and alone. Her development is one of the most significant ones and her ending was by far perfect for her character. Her dynamic with Jimuro is incredibly interesting and watching it evolve was wonderful – I absolutely loved this evolution and Tala’s character! (A little addition- I totally relate to her need for coffee, it was a fun little addition to her character)
Jimuro. Initially I disliked the Prince, largely due to the view I got of him. He can be pompous, snarky and rude. But, as the story went on he was also loyal, kind and helpful. I began to like him pretty quickly, even if I disagreed with some of his views, and by the end loved him too! His ending was equally as wonderful as Tala’s and adorable!
Xiulan. A bit of a pipe smoking oddity, but I liked her immediately, she compares herself to a fictional detective figure (Bai Junjie) throughout the story, reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes, and is quite clever herself. She is funny, witty and also charming. Her ending was the most bittersweet, but also a little surprising – though still quite perfect for her.
Lee. The thief with one rule ‘Leave them before they leave you’ has had tho steal to live her whole life, and she is good at it. She is clever, sly and a master manipulator, but there is a kinder person underneath. (Lee is definitely me every time I see a dog). Her ending was sweet and well deserved. I liked her character though did get mad at her at times- but she comes through in the end.
Each character was easy to relate to, realistic, well crafted and well developed. By the end I loved them all. The side characters were also very well created and actually had significant effects on the story, but I won’t discuss them, they are better as a surprise.)
While I could say so much more about this novel, I won’t as it would be far too spoilery and that would ruin the story.
— A Stunning Masterpiece —
Overall. Steel Crow Saga, by Paul Krueger is a stunning masterpiece. With influences from anime, a wonderfully diverse cast and an intriguing and unique plot, it is an unmissable fantasy that everyone should read. By far one of the best I have read this year.
I would recommend this to anyone who loves anime, fantasy, diversity, magical animals, magic in general, or just anyone who wants a great read with great characters, relationships and development. I cannot give this enough praise-it is truly a stunning masterpiece.