Violence is a disease.
I think about this fact a lot. Violence done unto one person begets a kind of contagion. It’s generational – passed down from parent to child. It’s societal – normalization of violence against certain groups or within certain contexts. And it’s codified in politics – the hegemonic powers of war, of the death penalty.
Violence is a disease.
A person has to choose to extricate themselves from it. To heal.
Each of the characters in the Steel Crow Saga has both benefited from and been subjected to violence in different ways. But the two characters I’ll focus on here are Jimuro, the soon-to-be emperor of an aggressive, colonizing state which has now been defeated; and Tala who has done harm to her family and her self in the name of fighting against the violence done to them, whose country has won the war. No one in this story is without sin, though it would be easy to write a narrative where one of these two sides are the glorious winners and the other the defeated evil. While Jimuro is obviously the main person who has to reckon with the violence his people have done to others by conquering Sanbu and Shang and making war on other nations, this book does not allow him to become a flatly reductive villain. Everyone here has done violence. That’s what war is.
Jimuro becomes the embodiment of the fraught inheritance of empire within this text. He wants desperately to have pride in his heritage, but his pride in his heritage is caught up in the subjugation of other ways of living, in looking down on Sanbu especially. Soldiers from Sanbu, like Tala, killed his mother and his sister, and there is no doubt that was a heavy loss. That same mother and sister made war against Tala’s people and subjugated them. To recognize that is to question whether that loss was justified – and what son, what brother who honestly loved his family can easily countenance such a question in the face of his own grief? Jimuro must find a way to acknowledge the full complexity of his deceased relatives – their love and kindness must sit alongside the wrongs they’ve done to others. He must find pride in his identity without using it as a weapon. He must find compassion for his enemies while recognizing his culpability.
Tala, too, has lost family. She is a trained soldier – she has been killing Tomodanese soldiers for years, fighting to avenge her family and free her country from oppression. Tala is a warrior who can’t stop fighting. For her the war isn’t done, just paused. Her struggle is to forgive herself, but also to forgive the Tomodanese, to recognize that the war is over, that peace is possible. To deconstruct her training as a soldier. To not let it rule her.
Both characters are struggling with the inheritance of violence, their own and others’. Both characters are trying to find a middle way forward – one that allows them to live, to atone, to acknowledge, and ultimately to love. And it is a struggle. Of course it is. This central emotional thru-line is the most compelling thing about this book. The action scenes and the cool magic systems are just a bonus.
The easiest thing to do is to let violence continue. It’s a lot harder to understand someone, to forgive them. But at the end, compassionately, this is what Steel Crow Saga lets us do. It lets us forgive, and in forgiveness, love.