Hello and welcome to the second edition of Your Mileage May Vary. This week I’ll be taking a look at Steel Crow Saga by Paul Krueger.
As always, a reminder:
I picked up this book because I saw it mentioned somewhere on Twitter as a great example of a standalone fantasy novel. Fantasy as a genre is inundated with trilogies and series, and, since I usually don’t pick up series after I read the first novel anyway, a standalone appealed to me. (Worth noting that I also have a standalone fantasy percolating, and wanted to see how it was done.)
Steel Crow Saga follows four characters coping with the aftermath of a brutal war. It is set in a thinly veiled fantasy Asia, which had me worried, at first, I was getting into another Poppy War (you can read my review [here] for why that would worry me). Alas, Steel Crow Saga is a much different story. Though there is some realism and modernity, which I don’t usually care for in fantasy, it is still very much a fantasy.
To be honest, this book starts awfully slowly. In the beginning, our four heroes are paired in two sets of two, with alternating perspectives, then, somewhere near the middle, the two groups collide and things start to get messy. And frankly, the first 45% was difficult for me to get through. I had to convince myself to read a chapter a night. The setting was compelling, and most of the heroes interesting, flawed, and delightful (save one, but that’s neither here nor there), but the two storylines were both just… character-establishing roadtrips. Most events and hardships that occurred were simply to show us who these people were, with very little in the way of forwarding the plot along. As one character might be wont to say, this story took “a long walk to get to the good stuff.” That first 45% took me about two weeks to get through.
Then, we get on a train. And suddenly we are hurdling along, both literally and figuratively, at a frenetic pace. Everything from that moment on was absolutely gripping. I finished the final 55% in two sittings. The thing I appreciated the most: there was no Bad Decision Scene. A lot of times in novels, I’ve noticed, in order to foster conflict that will then in turn feed into the climax, the protagonist does something really, really dumb. And I get it, you want to show that your character is the cause of their own downfall, or something, I get it. But as a reader, I HATE THIS TROPE. It gives me this profound sense of secondhand embarrassment so strong that I usually end up just skimming the last third of the book.
Steel Crow Saga had no Bad Decision Scene. The characters’ choices at the midpoint still altered the course of the story, and affected them all in different ways, but everything they did made perfect sense to me, and, furthermore went in line with what Krueger spent the first 200 pages establishing. All of which meant I was able to enjoy the latter half of the book with enthusiasm and a genuine desire to find out how it was going to end, rather than a wish to just get it over with.
I will confess to some small dissatisfactions. Though the conflict throughout most of the book is largely interpersonal and somewhat abstract as the characters confront long-held prejudices and trauma from the war, there is an actual villain. An actual person with a real vendetta against one of the characters. And that… felt like a flaw to me. In this grand story with four, (five, if you count Mang) wildly contrasting perspectives, that the through line was a villain who only cared about one character who made a tragic mistake a decade ago was not my favorite choice.
I think that is partly because we didn’t get to spend much time in his head. We have brief scene that’s supposed to explain everything he does, and then Tala goes through some similar shit that contextualizes it all, but… by the time the final showdown rolled around I just found myself wishing we had gotten to examine Mayon a little closer. I think if we had, his very specific, personal hatred for Tala would have made a fine ending. As it stands, it became just… a way to wrap things up. (Also, although Tala was my favorite character, and I’m not usually a fan of trauma porn, I sort of think she should have died. I don’t know, her denouement with Jimuro was fine, even if I didn’t care for Jimuro for most of the book, and I would have been gutted to see her go, but… I also think it would have made sense. I’m still back and forth on this point.)
All told Steel Crow Saga is a compact story with clear goals and great characters (Lee’s voice, from start to finish was fucking fabulous). Though it starts slow, the giant mess at the midpoint (and the repercussions that follow) makes it all worth it.
Final rating for Steel Crow Saga: 4 out of 5 miles.
So now we know my thoughts, but what are your thoughts? Which POV was your favorite? Were you disappointed that there (probably, you never know) won’t be a sequel? Let me know what you think! Let’s get this discussion going!
As always, I’ll be back on Thursday when I’ll be talking about letting your characters do the driving and again on Sunday for our weekly #ShortButSweetSunday vignette. Until then, may your writing be plenty and your struggles be few.