ARC Review: Steel Crow Saga by Paul Krueger

Steel Crow Saga

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A soldier with a curse
Tala lost her family to the empress’s army and has spent her life avenging them in battle. But the empress’s crimes don’t haunt her half as much as the crimes Tala has committed against the laws of magic… and her own flesh and blood.
A prince with a debt
Jimuro has inherited the ashes of an empire. Now that the revolution has brought down his kingdom, he must depend on Tala to bring him home safe. But it was his army who murdered her family. Now Tala will be his redemption—or his downfall.
A detective with a grudge
Xiulan is an eccentric, pipe-smoking detective who can solve any mystery—but the biggest mystery of all is her true identity. She’s a princess in disguise, and she plans to secure her throne by presenting her father with the ultimate prize: the world’s most wanted prince.
A thief with a broken heart
Lee is a small-time criminal who lives by only one law: Leave them before they leave you. But when Princess Xiulan asks her to be her partner in crime—and offers her a magical animal companion as a reward—she can’t say no, and soon finds she doesn’t want to leave the princess behind.
This band of rogues and royals should all be enemies, but they unite for a common purpose: to defeat an unstoppable killer who defies the laws of magic. In this battle, they will forge unexpected bonds of friendship and love that will change their lives—and begin to change the world.

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I don’t think I even knew about this book until about a month ago. I think stumbled upon it by accident in someone’s blogpost about upcoming Asian inspired fantasy releases, and I was immediately fascinated. And while it took me a bit to immerse myself in it, I am so glad to have discovered this book and gotten hold of the ARC.

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The world building is one aspect that impressed me a lot. As the author is Filipino-American, I was expecting some inspiration from his country and their culture, but I was pleasantly surprised to realize that each of the kingdom present in this book is drawn from a different Asian country, and it’s developed so well that we are able to distinguish them pretty well. I particularly loved that one of them was based on India but it’s also the one kingdom which is least talked about in the book, so I kept wishing for more.

The other interesting aspect of this world is the pacting (or their version of magic). The people of Sanbuna and Shang are capable of shadepacting with animals – which is like forming a soul bond with an animal’s shade and then being able to call upon their familiar to fight alongside them. The Tomodanese on the other hand pact with metals, which helps them in controlling their weapons or using it to power their vehicles. The people of Dahal use their power internally to enhance their personal capabilities. Jeongsonese are the oppressed minority who are capable of pacting but have always been denied the right to gain the knowledge to do so. This distinction between the use of magic across various kingdoms is very helpful in developing differing motivations for each of them, letting us as readers experience varying perspectives and probably finding our own favorites.

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The writing style of this novel was also slightly different from what I’m used to but I’m unable to articulate exactly how that was. It is very introspective and we are subjected to many inner monologues of the characters – which I really enjoyed for the most part and helped me understand them better and invest in their development – but it also got long winded at times and may have contributed to the size of the book. I’m usually not a fan of dense writing, so the descriptive writing style should have put me off but I kinda enjoyed it and it made the settings feel more real. The main theme of the book is colonialism but despite the dark themes, there is also a very humorous undertone in the writing.

The pacing is also a little slow throughout but it is relentless, with things changing quickly and the characters having to adapt and evolve all the time. This is also essentially a quest/ journey novel and those seem to be my thing this year, so it’s not a surprise that I thoroughly enjoyed this journey with the characters. And the best part was that the author managed to give very distinct voices to each of them, so we are never confused about whose POV we are reading. I’m currently unsure if this is a standalone or a series, but the author did a wonderful job ending it very satisfactorily, so I’m happy if this the actual end; but there are also multiple threads that can be pursued to further this story and I would be delighted to jump into this world all over again.

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The characters are definitely the best and my most favorite part of this book, but I don’t wanna talk about them much. I think the beauty of this book is in discovering the various layers of each character and realizing what lays at the core of them. One thing common between all the POV characters is that they are real, flawed, pretty morally grey, not immune from being prejudiced and treating those different from them in a vile manner – but all of them go through a journey of unlearning all the wrong things, understanding others’ perspectives and building relationships with unlikely people. I felt very invested in knowing where the characters were going and what they might do next, so I never wanted to put the book down even though it was all a bit slow going. The characters do fall into familiar fantasy tropes like a grumpy soldier, an arrogant prince, a Sherlock inspired detective type character and a petty thief who gets roped into working for the other side – so it can feel a little predictable, but I enjoyed this slight predictability but also felt highly satisfied with the way things turned out for each of them.

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Though the author chose not to be very subtle in discussing some important themes, it didn’t in anyway lessen the impact of what was being told through the story. The impact of colonialism is very brutally described, along with the blatant disingenuous reasons that power hungry nations can come up with to colonize and occupy another country. It’s very evident that whatever noble the initial intentions may have been, the reality of occupation is always ugly. But the most important point that I think the author tried to make was that even if the colonizer is defeated by a revolution, war always brings out worst impulses and it doesn’t take much for the oppressed to turn into an oppressor. The nature of war and it’s impact on soldiers, and the utter lack of direction and purpose that they might feel during peace time is also deftly talked about.

I also loved how the author decided to give equal weight to all kinds of relationships. The importance of family and sibling bonds, and how losing them can have far reaching consequences forms an important part of the character’s choices and the kind of people they turn out to be. I also enjoyed the way human/animal bonds are shown – while some people can truly treat their familiars as slaves and impose their will upon them, others form bonds based on mutual respect and it was wonderful of the author to show us both perspectives. The book is also very queer and I loved how normalized it was in this world. It was lovely to see lesbian, gay, bi and trans characters all be able to be their true selves without any judgement.

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I guess I’ve gone on long enough in this review. Basically, all I want to say is I really really enjoyed this book a lot and I’m glad I got this opportunity to discover a new to me Asian author. As it has been marketed, if you like anime or Pokémon or are a fan of Fullmetal Alchemist, then this book might be for you, but I can’t vouch for it because I know nothing about them. However, if you do love reading about an ensemble cast of characters going on a physical (as well as metaphorical) journey to discover some hard truths about the world and find themselves changing accordingly, then this might be the perfect book for you. It also works very well as a standalone, so you should definitely give this a try if you aren’t ready to invest your time in a new series.

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PS: Thank you to Del Ray Books and Netgalley for providing me with this advance copy. All opinions expressed here are unbiased and solely mine.

14 thoughts on “ARC Review: Steel Crow Saga by Paul Krueger

Add yours

  1. Loved your review Sahi!! Somehow from your review, this book reminds me a little bit of The Merciful Crow, I’m not sure if I’m right or not. I’m super interested in seeing how the Kingdom like India is described.

    Loved your review Sahi ❤️❤️❤️❤️ Recently I’ve started to really appreciate slower paced books because. I’ve never had the patience for them before but now I seem to. So this book is definitely going onto my TBR.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Ahana 😊😊😊
      Merciful Crow was a bit more personal… this one felt more high stakes… and actually, that kingdom based on India is described so little… that was my only gripe with the book 😬😬

      I know right… looks like both of us have discovered a new found love for slow paced books this year… I guess I wanna savor them a bit these days, not rush through..

      Like

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