Four destinies collide in a unique fantasy world of war and wonders, where empire is won with enchanted steel and magical animal companions fight alongside their masters in battle.
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.
I listened to this book in audio and for some reason, despite it only being a little bit over 21 hours long, it took me about a month to finish. I’m not sure if it was the book or if I just wasn’t in the mood for audio, but I’m thinking the latter because there are things about this book I loved even if it did seem like there were parts of it that dragged for me.
First of all, let’s talk about what I loved about this book. The four main characters are fantastic and I loved all of them. I think I connected most with Tala, but I really did enjoy all of them. They all have great back stories which you come to know and appreciate throughout the course of the book. This isn’t a typical book of ‘oh, here’s a group of people coming together to form a fun new gang’ although that is kind of the result…sorta….eventually. Each of the characters is very much their own person with their own motivations. They’re from four distinct cultures which have fought and colonized and made alliances with and tried at times to take each other over to varying degrees of success. That makes for some very interesting dynamics between each of them. I loved getting to know each of them throughout the story.
As far as the plot, it’s basically a cannonball run type journey to move a checkers piece across the board to be crowned king while the other team tries to prevent that from happening. There’s also a great nasty Big Bad on their tails that shows up now and then to fuck up their day and you don’t find out why until later in the book. In the beginning the characters are split into two pairs–Tala and Jimuro are traveling together rather begrudgingly, and Xiulan rescues Lee from an execution because she wants her help tracking down Jimuro for her own political plans. We follow each of these dual story lines as these characters get to know each other. It’s not really a spoiler to say that they meet up at some point because I think that’s inevitable, but I love what Krueger did once they all end up in the same place (which I won’t say because I really don’t want to spoil things). All I can say is that hey changed up the dynamics suddenly and I thought that was great.
In between all of this plot you have this magnificent world building. Honestly, I think the world building was one of the highlights of the book for me. Sometimes world building can just be too much info dumping and exposition but that’s not the case here, he builds it into the story and into the characters and who they are as people. We get to know the four different cultures involved here, some of their history and conflicts, all through how the characters interact with one another. It’s absolutely brilliant. Can I also say how much I love how casually queer this book is? Like…I love how LGBTQ+ people exist and it’s not a big deal. And also how women are in the military and generals and stuff and that’s also not a big deal either. THANK YOU. I also love really love that there are various levels of technology and how magic is utilized within the story.
Speaking of the magic–it was really cool! I don’t often comment on the magic in fantasy books because it’s not the main thing that interests me, but I loved how there were different kinds of magic and how different cultures viewed the magic in different ways. Shadepacting, basically bonding an animal’s spirit at their moment of death to your own so that you can call them at will and make them do your bidding, makes for an intriguing concept but also brings a lot of ethical questions to mind for folks that aren’t used to it or like-minded. For instance, Jimuro hates that Tala’s people can magically enslave animal’s spirits. He believes that everything has a spirit and to capture ones spirit in such a way is akin to blasphemy. He doesn’t even eat meat because his beliefs are just that strong. I’ve seen a lot of people talking how much this book reminds them of anime and I think shadepacting is probably why–it brings to mind pokemon in some ways, only much darker. I also love steelpacting, the magic practiced by Jimuro’s people to infuse metal with magic is what has had a huge impact on the world-building overall because it’s what has enabled them to be so technologically advanced.
The only real criticism I have of the book is the pacing. At times it felt slow, and I’m not sure why because there was quite a lot of action and I enjoyed the characters so it’s not as if I minded the characters taking time to talk and get to know one another either. Maybe some descriptions and things were a bit repetitive (if I had to hear about Xiulan’s pipe or damn trilby hat one more freaking time…) but overall it seemed like a pretty good flow to things. Maybe because it just felt steady? Even during the action parts I rarely felt amped up or a sense of heightened suspense until one part in the latter half of the book and then again at the final climax. Also, after the final climax there was an entire hour and a half of wrapping things up which is a long time to go on after the final battle (unless you’re Tolkien and even then).
Overall, I really did enjoy this book, there’s a lot to admire about what Krueger has done with the world building here and I’m looking forward to reading more of his work in the future. 4/5 stars.