Steel Crow Saga by Paul Krueger: Asian-coded fantasy world, normalized queerness, & a nuanced dissection of colonialism

Steel Crow Saga
by Paul Krueger

a book review (hardcover)
published 26 September 2019
adult & fantasy

tagged for authors of color (asian authors), poc representation (asian-coded: chinese, filipino, japanese, korean), lgbtqiap+ (normalized) & miscellaneous (fat representation)

read the full synopsis.

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.

ASIAN-CODED FANTASY WORLD THAT’S MAGICALLY SOULFUL (PUN INTENDED) & INCREDIBLY NUANCED

Listen. I am not exaggerating when I say that, in less than 10 pages, I immediately noticed that Steel Crow Saga directly pulls from Filipino culture (which, as a Filipino myself, was an extremely delightful surprise on my part). I am also not exaggerating when I say that, in less than 10 pages, I effortlessly fell in love with the world-building and all its wonderfully rich nuances. Specifically, within a world that’s quite reminiscent of our 1920s to 1930s era (wherein technology like cars, telephones, and radio exist), there are five nations — all of which are either loosely or heavily inspired by existing Asian cultures.

🌻 Tomodanese (from Tomoda) – Coded after the Japanese. Described with fair skin and dark hair. Magical practitioners of metalpacting. Ruled by the Steel Lord.

🌻 Sanbunas (from Sanbu Islands, which is later renamed as Republic of Sanbu) – Coded after Filipinos. Described as having dark brown skin and blue-black hair. Magical practitioners of shadepacting. Ruled by chiefs.

🌻 Shang (from the Kingdom of Shang) – Coded after the Chinese. Have the largest population compared to the other nations. Magical practitioners of shadepacting. Ruled by the Crane Emperor.

🌻 Jeongsonese (from Jeongson, which is a vassal state of Shang) – Coded after the Koreans. Implied to have relatively similar physical features with the Shang. Forbidden from practicing magic. Ruled by Shang’s Crane Emperor.

🌻 Dahali (from Dahal) – Coded after South Asians. Described as having brown skin that’s darker than that of the Sanbunas’. Carry knives with decorated hilts on their persons; only its women are practitioners of ‘hex’ magic that has both healing properties and the capacity to be weaponized. Ruled by the Merchant-lords.

While there are many cultural differences among these nations, one important distinction is the magic their people make use of. Generally, all forms of magic involve the use of souls, be it projecting them or sharing them. Nonetheless, these practices are integral in appreciating each nation’s core values, beliefs, and traditions. Moreover, there is a ton of spirituality and soulfulness (pun intended) — not just within the magic system but also within the world itself — in the likes of nothing I have ever read before!

Krueger’s meticulous planning, extensive research, and keen attention to detail are evidently reflected in the construction of this fantastical world. Its history, economy, and politics are rich in both detail and clarity. Its fictional cultures are explored not just in terms of superficial differences (e.g. physical appearances, manners of dressing, mother tongue used) but in relation to deeper divides, such as patterns of thought and belief, as well. By carefully shaping Steel Crow Saga with both macro- and micro- levels of understanding culture and society, the resulting world-building is fascinatingly complex without sacrificing its elements of wonder and realness. This is all to say that the world in Steel Crow Saga is nothing short of sublime and phenomenal.*

While there is certainly a generous sense of realism in its world-building, it also provokes tugs of heartwarming nostalgia. With strong vibes of Avatar: Legend of Korra (think about its setting and atmosphere) and Pokemon-esque companions, Steel Crow Saga is a loving ode to and glorious celebration of anime, which will probably steer many readers into reminiscing their favorite shows and unearthing their dusty videogame consoles.

* Note: Although I utterly adore this fantastical world, I will admit that it mildly bothers me that all four nations, excluding the mercantile society of Dahal, have distinct features that can be easily attributed to specific Asian cultures like Philippines and Japan. There are details suggesting that Dahal falls under the (huge) umbrella of South Asia, but they are insufficient in revealing which particular South Asian culture. This vagueness becomes even more troubling once we consider the fact that three (3) out of five (5) nations take inspiration from East Asia — which, in turn, is reflective of the existing biases that greatly favor East Asia over other Asian countries.

In all fairness, on some level, the limited exploration of Dahali culture can be attributed to two facts, namely, (1) none of the leading characters are Dahali, and (2) Dahal was not as involved in the revolution against the Tomodanese Empire, nor did it suffer as badly as the other nations. Still, I think this vagueness is a shortcoming that must be recognized.

Related: Notes & Nuances — Steel Crow Saga by Paul Krueger

PHENOMENAL CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT & CHARACTER RELATIONSHIPS I WILL PROTECT WITH EVERY INCH OF MY LIFE

In creating a fictional world where queerness is normalized and inspiration is taken from real-life Asian cultures, Steel Crow Saga unsurprisingly provides a huge, unapologetically diverse cast of well-developed characters — all of whom are fascinating and compelling on their own individual merits. Even characters with minor roles are casually queer (e.g. trans, gay) and come across as well-rounded, as if they have entire backstories just waiting to be revealed. The story’s unfolding is chiefly narrated by four main characters with differing (if not, occasionally conflicting) agenda, motivations, and personal demons:

🌻 Tala – 20-year-old Sanbuna soldier who lost everything to the Tomodanese occupation and has been left with a curse she must hide. Motivated by duty and the promises she’s sworn. Fears the unknown. Strong-willed, responsible, and won’t take any shit from colonizers. Really likes coffee and adobo.

🌻 Jimuro – 20-year-old Tomodanese prince-turned-captive. Either pansexual or bisexual (not explicitly specified, but I’m betting on the former). Motivated by the desire to restore Tomoda into its former glory and save his people. Fears failure in leadership and his unpreparedness to rule as the Steel Lord. Favorite hobby is pissing off his bodyguard by regularly getting himself into life-threatening situations.

🌻 Lee – 21-year-old Jeongsonese thief with a sword-sharp tongue and heaps of trust issues. Bisexual. Motivated by the need to survive (and, if possible, live comfortably). Fears abandonment. Resident “real talk” queen who is really mean and rude to everyone, except for them cute doggos (aka the only weakness she’s willing to admit to).

🌻 Xiulan – 19-year-old pipe-smoking detective who just happens to be Shang’s least favorite princess. Lesbian (and an occasionally useless one, at that). Motivated by her personal ambition. Fears losing to her lifelong nemesis. Bookworm with a penchant for mystery/detective novels and a talent to spin three-word sentences into thirty.

Admittedly, not all of these characters are immediately likeable – and it’s a deliberate point that the author makes. Each one spurs a different reaction from the reader. For example, Tala effortlessly won over my admiration in the beginning, but as I learned more about her and her past, my disposition occasionally wobbled. In contrast, with his air of self-imposed superiority and entitlement (and not to mention, his complicity in the colonization and suffering of other nations), Jimuro is definitely not an easy character to root for. However, his character arc warmed my heart the most, and I was very surprised to realize that Jimuro has become one of my dear favorites in this book. But, you know, still a significant margin below Lee.

While Krueger greatly impresses with a richly rendered world-building, it’s his obvious expertise in building up and in beautifully developing realistic characters that really leaves quite an impression. As the story progresses, all four characters face a series of external obstacles and are also forced to confront their respective fears and deep-seated prejudices. Their growth as individuals is gradual, organic, and most remarkable of all, understandably non-linear: they reflect on their beliefs, begin to question them, take steps towards improvement, and then backslide before finding their way again.

From Tala’s complicated relationship with her brother to the fascinating bonds forged between people and their shade companions, Steel Crow Saga also offers a plethora of different relationships: some that really intrigued me, some that effectively surprised me, and some that had me swooning and squealing past 3 AM.

I greatly enjoyed the easy banter and explosive chemistry between Lee and Xiulan. The brewing Sapphic romance between them is hilariously endearing, and the chaos they create together? *chef’s kiss* Too lovely for my life! Similarly, I immensely liked how the forced alliance between enemies Jimuro and Tala develops throughout the story. Their relationship takes a few turns that I definitely did not anticipate! The interactions among themselves are also vastly entertaining.

“I’ve got a whole collection of scars,” Tala said.

“I can’t imagine you’re much of a fighter, then,” he sniffed, taking the bait.

“I’m here,” Tala said, “and hundreds of you steelhounds aren’t. So I guess I’m good enough.”

And then she smiled, for that crucial extra layer of fuck you.

AN IMPECCABLE BALANCE OF LAUGH-OUT-LOUD WIT & MUCH-NEEDED SOCIAL COMMENTARY

It comes as no surprise that Steel Crow Saga delves into the intricacies of colonialism, but what is both remarkable and valuable about Krueger’s approach is that the attack happens on both sides. The story examines the war and its aftermath from the perspectives of both the colonizer and the colonized, which results in a wonderfully nuanced and thorough critique of colonialism. Jimuro and Xiulan are extremely privileged and sheltered characters who are complicit to the horrific abuses and oppression unleashed by the two powerful conqueror nations (Tomoda and Shang, respectively). Given their uncomfortable position as colonizers, they have large blind spots in their perspectives of the war, which are repeatedly challenged, and they are forced to reconcile with the decades’ worth of blood on their hands. In contrast, Tala and Lee are victims who have suffered great losses from colonial power and yet they, too, are occasionally blinded by their own prejudices.

Arguably, Steel Crow Saga challenges, to some extent, the notion that there are winners and losers in war by shedding light on the casualties and sufferings experienced on both sides. It also addresses the critical role of hatred and prejudice in the cycle of violence. If I’m being honest, the dissection of colonialism, together with the recurring emphasis on restorative justice and active decolonization, that happens in Steel Crow Saga strongly resonated with me in a way that I have never, ever experienced from any other literature.

On a much lighter note, from the frequent repartee among the characters to the careful phrasings interwoven into the narrative, there is a generous amount of humor and laugh-out-loud wit sprinkled throughout the story. Moreover, there are also beautiful moments of lightheartedness and spiritedness that provide much-needed respites from the more hard-hitting themes and gritty portrayals.

Lee’s expression darkened. She eyed her new companion carefully.

Xiulan seemed to understand. “You have my word as a princess that you can speak freely without fear of reprisal or repercussion.”

“You don’t survive a life like mine if you haven’t got a fear of repercussions,” Lee said. “But fine, since you asked nicely: You’re a bunch of inbred fucks who’ve beaten down my country so badly it’ll never be able to stand on its own again, and kicked my people so much that even if you gave us our country back, we wouldn’t know what to do with it anymore. Going from you, to the Tomodanese, and then back to you… it’s like we’re that pipe of yours, getting passed around. You light us on fire, and then you suck everything valuable out of us. Doesn’t matter whose lips and lungs are doing the sucking.” She thought a moment, then added: “… Your Majesty.”

Xiulan blinked.

POWERFULLY EVOCATIVE, HIGHLY INTELLIGENT, & DEEPLY PERSONAL

Steel Crow Saga is defiantly political. Nevertheless, it also touches on more individual-centered themes, such as personal ambition and vengeance, healing and forgiveness, and learning and unlearning. Another recurring theme that I personally found compelling is the idea of doing things to honor the memory of the loved ones we’ve lost.

Moreover, through the deliberate use of details – from contrasting philosophies about cuisine, to varying preferences in architectural design, to tiny nuances of rituals and ceremonies — Steel Crow Saga heavily emphasizes on cultural differences and how the complex interactions of different cultures can lead to all sorts of tension and conflict, such as microaggressions and open hostility.

Kruger’s writing style is powerfully evocative and highly intelligent. From his notable command of the language to his careful use of literary devices, it is evident that every word in this 500-page book is a deliberate choice and lends purpose to the grander narratives explored and examined within the story. At the same time, while the book certainly reflects the identity and cultural heritage of the author (note: Krueger is Filipino-American), its writing allows a few glimpses into Krueger’s personality and sense of humor as well. Thus, Steel Crow Saga is a unique, impactful story that is undeniably written with heart, but also with clear intention.

The national dish of the Sanbu Islands was adobo: meat, either chicken or pork, stewed in a combination of soy sauce, garlic, pepper, and sugarcane vinegar. It was often joked to be the one thing the ten Sanbu Islands had in common, but even that wasn’t true. Recipes varied from island to island, city to city, even family member to family member. There was only one thing all Sanbunas could actually agree on when it came to adobo: Their ina’s was best.

HIGHEST OF RECOMMENDATIONS

Although inspiration is clearly drawn from numerous well-loved franchises and existing Asian cultures, Steel Crow Saga is more than able to stand on its own as a unique and captivating fantasy adventure that offers a balanced mix of hilarious wit and social commentary. Its story revolves around the personal quests of each character against the backdrop of a hugely fragile, post-war world that is threatened by larger political forces. At its heart, however, Steel Crow Saga imparts a story about hope, healing, and justice. This stand-alone epic fantasy has easily claimed a spot on my favorite books, and I will undoubtedly, lovingly scream about Steel Crow Saga until my lungs completely collapse.

Click to read the content and trigger warnings. War and violence; death and murder; alcohol drinking/consumption; blood; loss of loved ones; depictions of grief; allusion to prostitution; arson and bombings (non-explicit); terrorism and terrorist groups; bullying (implications); sex (implied and/or off-page); kidnapping and hostage situations; colonization and oppression; imprisonment; mentions of slavers and slavery; microaggressions

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I’d love to hear from you!

🌻 Have you read Steel Crow Saga by Paul Krueger? If not, are you going to pick up this epic fantasy? (I wholeheartedly believe that you should because I cannot recommend this enough!)

🌻 As mentioned in my review, there is no systemic stigma or discrimination based on skin color or sexuality in Steel Crow Saga, which is not very common in its genre. Have you read a fantasy story without these prejudices embedded in its world-building? Do you think we need more books that normalize queerness?

🌻 I really struggled with writing my review for Steel Crow Saga, which is why I decided to speed-reread my hardback copy and take a lot of notes (check out my notes about the nuances I found in this book). Have you experienced anything similar? How did you deal with it?


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8 thoughts on “Steel Crow Saga by Paul Krueger: Asian-coded fantasy world, normalized queerness, & a nuanced dissection of colonialism

  1. Welp, I was on the fence about this book, but your review just completely won me over. Positive queer rep AND Asian-influenced worldbuilding?? I am so here for it. Hopefully I’ll be getting to this one soon!

    Like

  2. Such a wonderful review Shealea… your analysis and the way you articulate it all so well is inspiring 😍😍😍
    While I may not have understood all of the commentary, I enjoyed this book a lot too and kept wishing it wasn’t a standalone…

    Like

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