I almost bailed early on Steel Crow Saga. It didn’t wind up blowing on me, but it did grow on me. I’m glad I didn’t bail.
Steel Crow Saga is sort of a secondary world, fantasy version of the Asia theater of WWII. An awkward, info dumpy prologue threw me off a bit. The prologue is set in the middle of fantasy Philippines’ (the Sanbu Islands) occupation by fantasy Imperial Japan (Tomoda). By the time the first chapter opens, Sambuna and the other occupied countries have thrown off their Tomodanese shackles and are figuring out what the new world order will look like. Much of the information dumped in the prologue, then, isn’t relevant, and much less information is given in the first chapter. It becomes apparent later why Krueger did what he did, but I still have to think that it could have been done in a better way.
Steel Crow Saga alternates among four POVs. One a Sambuna soldier, one the crown prince of Tomoda, one a Shang (China) princess and detective, and another a Jeongson (China-dominated Korea) criminal turned the detective’s partner. This is a choice that really benefits the book. A pair of characters are together at almost every time (with more coming together and some switching toward the end). Switching back and forth between the POVs of characters who spend so much time together really makes you care about them and the relationships between them.
Another move that works is setting the story in the aftermath of the war. It allows for a very solid plot and works thematically. I said above that the relationships are a selling point, but it takes real work to get there. Early on, ethnic strife gives a sharp edge to interactions (as will continue to be the case with almost every other character). It isn’t that this is unrealistic . . . well, actually, it is. If bigotry so reliably caused people to act against their interest it wouldn’t be so insidious.
I found the worldbuilding a little undercooked as well. It lines up fairly evenly with Asia. The Tomodonanese have power over metal, most of the other peoples can link there soul with an animal who will then serve as their “shade.” There are conceptual issues with ethnic powers, but Krueger does something quite interesting with that. I have said before that Imperial Japan is underused as a villainous power. Their fantasy analog’s treatment here is surprisingly sympathetic. That is perhaps no surprise, though, for a forward-looking book written today. Japan may have been nastier than China at the time, but there is no question who has the nastiest regime today.
3 of 5 Stars.
Disclosure: I received an advance copy of Steel Crow Saga from the publisher.