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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.
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY NPR • Tordotcom • Kirkus Reviews
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 against 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 she 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.
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Steel Crow Saga
This wasn’t Lee Yeon-Ji’s first time in a jail cell, but unless the executioner changed their mind, it was looking to be her last.
The kingdom of Shang had never expected much from women like Lee, and she’d never expected a whole lot from Shang, either. All she’d ever wanted was enough room to slip about, pulling the small jobs and scams that had always kept her stomach and her pockets . . . well, not full, but at least more than empty. That’d been easy enough to manage during the Tomodanese occupation, and she figured it should have been even easier now that the Shang kingdom was rebuilding itself. For the most part, she’d even been right.
She just hadn’t accounted for the depths to which some people would stoop to be a prick.
She didn’t bother getting to her feet as two officers appeared beyond the bars of her cell. They were a tall woman and a short man, in scarlet guard uniforms of fine Shang wool. The tall guard rattled the cell’s bars with her baton. “On your—”
“—feet?” Lee said, with a quirk of her eyebrow. It was thin and long and sharp, like the rest of her face, like the rest of her everything. “That was what you were going to say, right? Figured I’d save you some breath, considering you Shang are about to save me a lot of mine.”
“Mouth off all you want,” said the short guard. “See what kind of mercy that gets you.”
“Oh, come on,” Lee pouted. “Could you convict and execute a face like this?”
The tall guard sneered. “Get on your feet, or I’ll summon my shade and leave it in there with you. You’re just a dogf***er. I wouldn’t even get in trouble.”
There was a time when the slur dogf***er would have hurt Lee’s feelings. But for any of the thousands of Jeongsonese living in Shang, that particular slur lost its impact by their third birthday. And Lee was a good eighteen years removed from her third birthday; she barely even registered the term now.
So in the face of the woman’s threat, Lee just shrugged. “f*** it. Go ahead. If your shade’s a dog, I’d probably find a way to enjoy myself.” The thought of actually f***ing a dog made her skin crawl. But if these puffed-up Shang were dead set on seeing her as nothing more than a dogf***er, why not play the role to the hilt on her way off the stage?
The woman was unamused by Lee’s performance. “You don’t want me to do that, girl. She bites.” She held up a hand, which was missing its last two fingers.
Lee considered pointing out it was extremely unlikely that the shade had done that, since shades were supposed to contain part of their human partner’s soul, and vice versa. But rather than annoy this guard who’d just as soon do the executioner’s job for them, she sighed and stood at last. “Lead the way, Officers,” she said, and let them take her on one last walk through the Kennel.
The prison hadn’t always been called the Kennel. Under Tomodanese control, it had been called Fort Asanuma, after the daito who’d once ruled Jungshao. And before that, in the days of the first Shang kingdom, it had been called the Temple of Justice. Even now, with Tomoda defeated and Shang ascendant once more, it had just been renamed Jungshao Prison. But the locals on both sides of the bars called it the Kennel, and who was Lee to argue with custom?
Besides, in her book there were worse things to be compared to than a dog.
The Kennel’s corridors were open air, the cellblocks forming separate buildings within a larger courtyard. This meant her cell got sunlight most days, but today there were only thick gray clouds and a thin, steady drizzle. The rain collected between the slate tiles underfoot, and they sloshed faintly with each step Lee took toward her impending death.
Some of her fellow inmates sat in their cells and stared at their feet as she passed, slouching like beaten circus animals. Others shouted things at her: Obscenities. Jeers about the gibbet that awaited her. Variations on the same four slurs she’d been hearing her whole life. She found it easy to ignore them all. Her stay in the Kennel had been so brief that if she were a man, she wouldn’t have even had the time to grow decent stubble.
Right by the front gates of the prison stood a gibbet. On one end of it was a high gallows and a trapdoor; on the other, a polished wooden block whose surface was slick with rain. This was the custom in Shang: that condemned citizens would be allowed to take ownership of their death by choosing how they got to make their exit. Lee just wished Shang custom included options like “drowning yourself in soju” or “death by a thousand naked women.”
A few prison guards were there to oversee the execution. A white-robed executioner stood atop the gibbet, leaning on a huge, heavy saber. And waiting at the foot of the stairs was the strikingly handsome Magistrate How, arguably the most powerful man in the newly liberated province of Jungshao. He hadn’t been the first enemy Lee had made in her life, but apparently he was going to be the last.
Lee smiled mirthlessly to herself. He’d come to see her off personally. How thoughtful of him.
A squat woman fell into step next to her: Warden Qu. She looked oddly at home in the rain, but perhaps it only seemed that way because of her toadlike appearance. “What will it be, Lee?” she said. “The rope or the blade?”
“Don’t suppose you’d let me order off the menu?” Lee said. She kept her tone even, but her traitor heart started to race as she eyed her two choices. It’d been easy to remain cool and detached before now, hiding behind smirks, snark, and silence. But you couldn’t exactly smile your way out from under the shadow of a gibbet.
“You’re hardly the first guest to make that comment.” The warden sighed. She always referred to the inmates as guests, like they were all friends bunking together at a roadside inn. “Have you made your choice?”
Lee did the math. Escape was impossible. If she made a break for it, they’d either shoot her or sic their shades on her. And it wasn’t like she had one of her own to summon; her native Jeongson was a vassal state of Shang, and only Shang-born citizens were allowed to know the secrets of shadepacting. Not that the steelhounds had been better, the bastards. Some of the Jeongsonese had actually welcomed Tomoda when they’d first arrived on Shang’s shores, eager to see their oppressors given a taste of their own medicine. But as far as overlords went, the Tomodanese had been more of a lateral move than an upgrade.
She sighed, as if choosing the manner of her death were little more than an annoying household chore. “Sword,” she said. “Any chance he can warm it up before he swings it? My neck’s cold.”
The warden rolled her eyes, then waddled over to the gibbet to let the executioner know. Lee prepared to follow her up the stairs, but the magistrate held up a hand. “A moment,” he said in the bouncy tones typical of Shang’s public servants.
“You mind, Magistrate?” Lee said. No point in observing pleasantries now. “I’m kind of in the middle of something.”
“I just wanted to remind you,” said Magistrate How, “that everyone has their betters, and this is what happens when you test them. There’s a natural order to things, and Heaven forbids that it be upset.”
Lee shrugged. “I’ll lodge a complaint when I get there. Get right to the heart of the matter.”
Magistrate How, born pale enough, went even paler.
“What?” said Lee. “Can’t stomach a friendly chat in the rain?”
All the color had drained from the magistrate’s face. Lee could practically see the veins and capillaries in his cheeks. “How dare you!” he shrieked, then slapped her across the face. He didn’t have a lot of strength in him, but he had a lot of rings on his fingers, and they stung fiercely when they connected with her cheekbones.
The warden came running. “Magistrate How!” she said. “What—?”
“Don’t mind him,” Lee said. “The man’s just venting his spleen. I’ll have me that sword now.”
Magistrate How scoffed. “As if I’d ever allow you a clean death,” he said, his imperious tones back in full force. “Warden, executioner, you shall hang her!”
The warden shook her head. “Apologies, Magistrate,” she said. “The law’s clear: We must honor her choice of the sword.”
“I am the law,” the magistrate said, rounding on her. “I have been appointed by His Most August Personage the Crane Emperor himself. If I say I want her hanged, I will have her hanged.” Seeing him carry on, it surprised Lee how much the right kind of sneer could unmake even the handsomest face.