A prince, a soldier, a detective, and a thief. Four very different people, with very different histories and experiences. There are two things that they all share: they have survived the war that just ended, and during that war they have all suffered significant losses. Over the course of a few days, the prince, the soldier, the detective and the thief will learn, in very real, tangible ways that they are more alike than unalike, and it is a lesson that very well may change their world.
Sergeant Tala, of the army of the Republic of Sanbu, is a warrior. She has fought in the war her entire adult life. Now she has been ordered by General Erega to deliver the Iron Prince Jimuro to the capital of Tomoda. Jimuro was captured by the Sanbu and during his time as a prisoner of war he has been talking with General Erega about the future their countries, and of the Shang and Jeongsonese as well. Tomoda lost the war, but Jimuro sees there is now an opportunity for lasting peace, if only he can get back to Tomoda and ascend to the throne to try to enact his plans. Tala will give her all to make sure he arrives, although she makes no guarantees about the condition in which she delivers him.
Inspector Xiulan of the Li-Quan, Shang’s highest level of law enforcement, responsible for enforcing the will of the Shang throne, conscripts Lee Yeon-Ji, an efficient, small time, Jeongsonese thief, to assist in her most outrageous case yet: locate and abduct Iron Prince Jimuro before he can be delivered to Tomoda. Her reason for the disguise? She is actually Shang Xiulan, 28th princess to the Shang throne. With 27 siblings ahead of her, Xiulan hopes that delivering Jimuro to her father may just push her up the list of succession to make her the next person to wear the crown.
Two pairs of travelers: one intent on the Prince arriving in Tomoda, the other intent on ensuring that doesn’t happen. Oddly, each group is not the other’s greatest concern. There is a single traveler whom both groups will encounter. He is seeking revenge, and he will stop at nothing, including perverting the laws of nature and magic, to wreak his vengeance.
In this novel, fantasy author Paul Krueger (The Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge), plays fast and loose with some of the typical tropes of the genre with fascinating and compelling results. Krueger sets his quest in an alternate version of China, Japan, Korea and the Philippines (as opposed to the traditional Western European settings). He also sets this quest in the aftermath of a war, rather than just prior to or in the midst of the conflict. The result is an interesting exploration of failed colonial action from the perspectives of all involved. Setting the action after the fighting also means that even the most honorable of the protagonists has committed actions during the war that they, at best, regret, and of which they are possibly ashamed. They have all been affected by war-time propaganda, either being on the side promoting the message or on the side fighting against it. And all must now overcome these mindsets that, while necessary during the conflict, must be set aside if peace is to ever prevail.
Krueger also creates a complex system of magic, which allows some of the characters to “bond” with elements, while others can do the same with living creatures. Of course, there are rules for these “pacts,” and during the story, these rules are challenged, stretched, broken or simply overcome because, as in real life, necessity often requires us to leap beyond what we think we know into what wasn’t possible until we tried.
Where Krueger really shines are his characters. Each one has their strengths and their vulnerabilities, and the plot allows readers to see each one at both their best and their worst. Krueger also does a marvelous job of breaking the established pairings up during the course of the novel so that each of the four main protagonists has a chance to act and interact with the others at one point or another. Krueger has a real sense for dialogue, and the repartee often has the snap and zing of a 1940s romantic comedy.
Steel Crow Saga is a welcome change to the fantasy genre, and Krueger is a writer to watch.