Steel Crow Saga Decolonizes Epic Fantasy with Style

On social media, Paul Krueger (Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge) has described his new novel Steel Crow Saga as a book he wrote for himself—not to capitalize on a trend or play to the marketplace, but to reveal himself fully on the page. Would that every author trusted their instincts so well.

This novel is nothing less than epic, both in scope and themes. It follows the intertwining stories of four characters: Jimuro, reluctant heir to the throne of Tomoda, a recently unseated colonizing power in a fantasy world where different forms of magic serve as both tools of oppression and justification for persecution; Tala, a soldier in the recent war that won her people, the Sanbunas, their independence, still harboring deep trauma and deeper secrets; Xiulan, sidelined heir-turned-detective to the throne of Shang, another nation flexing its muscles after throwing off the yoke of the Tomodanese; and Lee, a thief thrown into the middle of the fray, who’d rather flee than fight. As these stories weave together, a greater threat unfurls that could destroy the precarious peace between the four countries and cultures they represent.

The sprawling narrative opens with Tala covertly escorting an imprisoned Jimuro to Tomoda so that he can safely reclaim the throne and formalize the peace accords that will bring an end to a bloody war. At the same time, the criminal Lee Yeon-ji narrowly escapes execution with the help of her quick wits and the eccentric detective Shang Xiulan. While Tala fights to keep a child of the enemy empire safe, Xiulan seeks Jimuro out in an effort to redeem herself in the eyes of her father’s kingdom. Along the way, the four characters command awe-inspiring magic while witnessing horrors beyond their imagination, forming strong bonds of friendship and love as they help each other heal from their respective traumas.

Steel Crow Saga stands out among recent fantasy epics for a number of reasons. The characters, many of whom are LGBTQ, are distinct and vivid. Even the most minor of them feels well-rounded, as if there’s a whole backstory for them to tell. The pacing is superb; Krueger knows just when to end a chapter to keep the reader turning the page, and just when to drop crucial bits of backstory to pique the reader’s curiosity while playing up each character’s emotional depth.

What Krueger excels at, though, is worldbuilding, particularly with regard to magic, culture, and politics. There are multiple forms of magic at play in Steel Crow Saga: “Shadepacting” allows a person to share their soul with an animal companion that can do their bidding; imagine a cross between the dæmons of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and Pokémon. “Metalpacting,” meanwhile, allows a person to manipulate metal in various ways, including changing its hardness and temperature. “Hexbolts” are powerful projections of a person’s soul energy, a formidable defense capable of incapacitating an opponent. These powers are cinematic and fun to read about, but they are much more than stylish window dressing; the mythology behind the entire magic system lends it a rooted and ancient feel (though their combined effect is refreshing and original, the author points to both Avatar: The Last Airbender and Fullmetal Alchemist as inspirations), and the repercussions of its various forms—all culturally specific—ripple out into the very society that grows from them. (A memorable example: the Tomodanese are the only metalpacters; subsequently, their technology has evolved around the ability to the point where they can use metalpacting to drive engineless cars, which are but useless lumps of steel to anyone else.)

The novel’s various cultures are richly rendered. There are superficial differences—the characters’ appearances, the way they dress, the languages they speak—but also deeper divides. Worldbuilding cultures is often conceptualized in terms of an iceberg: Superficial differences arise from deep patterns of thought and belief that can be harder to articulate and symbolize. Yet Krueger illuminates those depths with his careful use of details, from differing perspectives on how magic should be used, to contrasting philosophies about cuisine and a person’s relationship to food, to nuances of ritual and ceremony embedded even in the very architecture of the world. There is no part of Steel Crow Saga that doesn’t feel shaped by a deep understanding of culture on both micro and macro levels.

Krueger also tackles the complexity of cultures interacting, fully considering the sorts of tensions can arise from those meetings. I usually find myself bored with fantasy politics, but this novel hooked me by sewing them up with culture and character; each twist reveals the flawed humanity in the varied political players. More importantly, the novel showed me something rare in anglophone speculative fiction: a nuanced and thorough critique of colonialism. Colonialism manifests in many ways in the novel, from the cruel dismissal and subjugation of Lee’s Jeongsanese people, to the violence enacted on the Sanbunas by two colonial powers, to the once-conquerer, now-conquered Tomodanese empire. The colonialist dynamics are called out in a frank and refreshing manner, and characters in a privileged position quickly find their arguments about being “one of the good ones” shut down as they’re forced to reconcile their uncomfortable positions and the legacies they’ve inherited.

Krueger examines both the colonizer and the colonized with a masterful eye and a deft understanding of the human psyche. For example, Though Tala has experienced horrors at the hands of the Tomodanese, it remains an open question whether the violence she enacts herself is justified—whether seeking revenge on an individual level will ever restore balance on a societal scale. At the same time, the narrative acknowledges that greater societal changes do begin on an individual level: Jimuro and Xiulan start from positions of naïveté about what it means to make amends as a colonizer, but Krueger doesn’t handwave away difficult questions with vague answers. By the end, Steel Crow Saga illustrates powerful ways to provide reparations and restorative justice. Krueger’s world is one in which the colonizer is not excused, and where change is possible only through active participation in decolonization—a lesson that applies all too well to our own world.

Steel Crow Saga is one of the best fantasy novels I’ve read. Krueger offers a world rich with detail and verisimilitude, centering Asian cultures and their analogs in a riveting tale of magic and adventure. It cements the author as a powerful voice in decolonial speculative fiction, and though it is presented as a standalone work, I hope we’ll get a chance to experience more stories in this multilayered, multifaceted universe.

Steel Crow Saga is a Fall 2019 Barnes & Nobel Discover New Writers selection. It will be published September 24. 

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