The premise is fascinating, "When a god dies, who gets left behind?" but in the exploration the series leans so far into genre romance I often found I was bored and tuned out.

Disclaimer: This is a review, and as such will contain opinions, spoilers and (often) general shit talking. (If you talk about what you don’t like about a work, you learn a lot. When you think through a work with the stakes presented to you by the creator, by the context of the work, you learn a lot. I review things, not because I love to dislike things, but because dislike contains rich and vital information for the process of experiencing something, but I cannot access it without interrogating it.) So, if you don’t want to have this thing spoiled for you, or don’t know how to behave when a person on the internet, that you don’t know, has opinions that don’t line up with yours, this review is not for you. It’s also not for the author/creator of the work. Please and thank you.

The Saint of Steel series by T. Kingfisher is a fantasy series. In each new book, we get to continue the journey with another character that’s already familiar from previous books.

If you’re tired of fantasy starring super-hot, super-special recently-legal young adults with improbably smooth banter skills, allow me to recommend this series full of awkward, but well-meaning, damaged middle-aged people who are trying to piece together quiet yet adequate lives.

This is genre fiction, nothing particularly earth-shattering, but they’re easy to read, cosy (despite the gruesome circumstances) and the characters have good banter, though they do start resembling each other an awful lot as you move through the series.

Book 1: Paladin’s Grace

Stephen meets Grace and their romance develops over a pile of decapitated heads, dead and dying assassins, political intrigue, spies, and religious fanatics.

Stephen was a paladin to a now-dead god. Many of the paladins in his order went berserk when their god died, killing innocent people and themselves. Now there are only six of them left and they’ve taken up service under a different temple.

Grace is a perfumer who has escaped an abusive marriage to start a new life in a new city. She has a propensity for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and ends up being rescued by Stephen most of the time.

What ensues is a will-they-won’t-they where they both feel the same way about each other, and constantly think about how much they want to see each other without their clothes on, yet they’re both completely convinced that the other person isn’t at all interested.

It gets really frustrating to read, because there’s a lot of pining in internal monologue. If you like that sort of thing, maybe this is for you. I prefer more action, less explanation.

Paladin’s Grace felt like a stronger piece than Swordheart, though the characters seem to be evolving into archetypes that get repurposed in the next book, rather than individuals. So far, we’ve got the curvy woman and the big, burly swordsman as in Swordheart (and this continues in book 2 as well).

The plot isn’t the strongest, the pining romance clearly taking the lead again. And fair, if that’s what you’re good at, there’s nothing wrong with leaning into your strengths. But I do feel like there are a lot of plot elements introduced, and if the previous is the case, maybe don’t start juggling so many plot arcs in one book.

This becomes an issue when the plot is too confusing or I don’t care about it enough to really sit through the parts where they wonder what it would be like to undress each other, but categorically refuse to have a conversation about it.

In the end, I felt like the rug was pulled out from under me a bit, because the mystery that drives much of the plot ends up having nothing to do with anything, it’s basically just a misunderstanding. For a mystery to be at the centre of the book, this wasn’t satisfying as a conclusion.

I do love Stephen and his socks, though.

It’s wonderful to see a man depicted as doing some kind of craft, but I can’t help but think it smells a bit of The Big Guy (big and intimating on the outside, but just a softie on the inside). There’s nothing wrong with this trope, but when this is now the second time around we’ve got this pairing (if you read Swordheart first) it just feels… tropey and predictable.

The conversations Stephen and Istvhan are the most entertaining, because it really feels like two characters who know each other well, and it makes the characters feel real and lived-in (as opposed to being cardboard cutouts).

Book 2: Paladin’s Strength

The beginning is great, it starts right in the middle of the action and we (as readers) are left to figure out what’s going on as the characters do.

It’s fun and entertaining, classic fantasy stuff.

We get the same writing, same balance of violence and cosiness, warmth and cruelty as in book one. People cope because it’s the only thing they can do, or it’s what their friends and family need.

T. Kingfisher writes romances that are respectful and loving, perhaps healthy relationships because the parties are mature and experienced in love and loss.

Paladin’s Strength focuses on Istvhan and werebear-nun Clara.

I won’t spoil the beginning, and will simply say that I adore this couple, if for no other reason than because they’re both large people navigating a world that isn’t made for them.

Their romance develops over the course of chasing the source of more strange murders and a group of werebear-nuns that have been kidnapped to be showcased in a gladiator ring.

I like the pacing better than Paladin’s Grace, which was more courtroom drama. Paladin’s Strength (perhaps through an overcorrection) is almost nothing but action from start to finish, though a lot of time is spent travelling on a road (just like in Swordheart).

I was excited to start reading, especially with how it started off, but soon found that we were digging in with the burly paladin and the curvy woman.

Clara does seem to be more distinct than Grace, but if you replace werebear-nun with perfumer… yeah, it’s super similar.

But this is genre fiction.

And my history with genre romance is what it is. It’s a solid book (as the whole series is) in terms of following the genre pattern laid out by the author in the first book.

The writing is good, clean, if a bit flowery for my taste. Especially the pining is something I get impatient with, and when you’ve got middle-aged characters doing that back-and-forth like they’re still wet behind the ears I lose interest.

As with the other books in the series, when it comes to the long stretches of pining, I often tune out and don’t find it’s worth it to go back and see what I missed (the plot moves slow enough that I didn’t miss anything).

Slow burn is typically my wheelhouse, but in the case of this series it just doesn’t do it for me. I like it that things develop slowly, and I can even accept the doubts and misgivings, but I just get bored being beaten over the head with the pining again and again.

But that’s me.

The mystery from book one is solved around the 70% mark, and I was left trying to understand what the purpose of the mystery was. The wonderworker who’s work is behind the mystery wasn’t really explored at all, the events are only explored from perspectives outside of him and it felt like it lacked a good buildup to the resolution.

(Maybe this is the SFF reader in me talking, but I’m used to, and like it, when large topics that are introduced are explored in more depth than this.)

Once the mystery is solved, it’s just solved. It didn’t feel like it led anywhere.

Istvhan was left with the moral dilemma of how to tell the innocent from the guilty without his god doing it for him, and navigating the world after that loss. This honestly felt like a much bigger, more interesting theme to explore, but using the wonderworker to explore that seems like a really convoluted solution?

Istvhan has a career of being around dubious people and dangerous situations, so I’m sure he could have found a plot device in his own life that wasn’t so complicated. (I’m slipping into how I’d write it again, and I’m gonna stop now.)

Maybe I’m just disappointed because the perspective of the wonderworker was kind of glossed over and didn’t really go anywhere.

Considering that Istvhan was set up as being more forward than Stephen in the last book, I wasn’t maybe completely sold on his hesitation around Clara in this book. Towards the end he suddenly finds his confidence and makes a 180-turn into a much smoother version of himself.

Any speculation on my part what would have made me like Istvhan more, or what would have made me buy the hesitation, would be me trying to think of how I’d write this and then we’d have a completely different story, so I’m not gonna.

I do really appreciate how independent and proactive Clara is, it’s a nice change from the more timid approach to life Halla and Grace have. Clara was one of the best things about the book, hands down.

Book 3: Paladin’s Hope

Ah, hmm. I’m a bit disappointed.

Paladin’s Hope is the m/m installation of the series, focusing on paladin Galen and forensic pathologist Piper.

While the romance definitely left me hanging in this one, we avoid any major stereotypes about gay men, for which I’m thankful.

Galen is a warrior dealing with severe PTSD and Piper is a forensic pathologist who spends more time with dead people than live ones, and appreciably has some balancing to do in his social manners.

These are clearly people first and gay second, and in this love-positive universe, same-sex relationships clearly don’t raise any eyebrows.

Again, we see this beautiful balance between the macabre and the cosy (people with creepy jobs deserve love, too!) as Piper and Galen are swept up in solving yet more mysterious murders (not the same cause as last time, though).

At the request of gnole Earstripe, Galen and Piper set off on (yet another) road trip upriver. Thankfully, we don’t spend that much time on the road this time.

We get a lot more about gnoles and gnole culture in this book, which is really interesting and gives rise to a lot of good banter and humour.

However, our three characters are isolated for much of the book in what feels like a plot device.

I mean, everything in a book is a plot device, the issue is when it starts to shine through as one. The maze we explore raises more questions than it provides answers and this makes me suspect we might return to the topic in a future book.

Being isolated as such made me feel like a convenient way to trap the characters together and facilitate them falling in love, which had me questioning the influence of the battle buddy effect in the relationship.

The gauntlet that these two people are pushed through puts them on the very edge of their mortality. And when everything is scary and dangerous, and you don’t know if you’re going to survive the next 30 minutes, you very quickly fall into honesty and intimacy, before it’s too late.

In terms of the slow burn, we get the same hemming-and-hawing as in the previous books, with the same pining (which, to me, feels aimless and like it just goes in circles without adding to the story).

I will say that for all the PC dumping in Swordheart, this last instalment didn’t write the sex out on the page as the previous books did. Partly because they were in a dangerous place, but perhaps also because the author didn’t want to go there.

On the other hand, except for Swordheart, there seems to be an explicit sex scene around the 60% marker, and subsequent scenes gets glossed over.

With previous books being heavy on the PC prose, the proposal and marriage had me scratching my head in this book.

So, the gays got to have marriage (in our world the most patriarchal institution which we’ve been fighting for and are still fighting for in most parts of the world) but not much sex on the page. But then we also get to read the proposal and subsequent wedding in a flashback, rather than get to be there when it happens.

This leaves me feeling like I’m getting mixed messages, and I have to wonder why the m/m romance was the one to get treated differently? Isn’t that the antithesis of what we’re trying to do, which is to normalise m/m, f/f and poly-romance in the mainstream?

This whole balance left me feeling confused and short-changed.

I’ve read this far in the series (more is coming) because it’s reliable genre fiction.

And I have to keep reminding myself that despite reaching for a plot ever time, it’s still genre romance and I need to anticipate the boredom I’m going to experience.

Because the same reason that makes me like the books is makes me dislike them: they’re so similar to each other.

In all books there were bits where I got bored and didn’t bother to go back and find out what happened, because it’s not that relevant.

These books are mostly character driven and the plot clearly takes a backseat to the pining romances. And that’s perfectly okay.

These are the kind of middle-of-the-road books I love to read for their familiarity in between other, larger, conceptually more complicated works.

The trope of strong men, who can’t control themselves and are a danger to others, but suddenly find themselves emotionally vulnerable is the foundation of all the books in the series.

But despite being big, strong and dangerous, they’re not toxic. Just cute and cuddly.

And, yes, you do get beaten over the head with it.

While the themes and writing are for a mature audience, the “I’m a monster. My love interest could never love me. They’d leave me anyway. I’m no good for them.” gets old pretty quickly, and you find yourself wishing there was more plot than pining to keep the story moving.

But these books are solid genre fiction and I enjoy them so long as I remember to take them for what they are and not wish for more.

Want to get more out of reading books?

Grab this FREE guide on how to start a reading journal, complete with review templates, reading trackers and bingo sheets.

Understand yourself better as a reader, engage more with the books you read & create space for creative self-expression. Download now!

When Sasha Barrett gets bitten by a snake on a mission, her squad captain’s quick actions not only save her life, but also make her realise something she may have known all along…

Read it for FREE right here! 🎉