One of the things that I ensured I did during my recent holiday (in November, posts since then were absent due to a crazy few weeks at work) was to read fiction, something I don’t get to do as much as I’d like these days (the real world, work etc being what it is). One of the numerous books I got through was Steelheart, the most recent novel by Brandon Sanderson who is perhaps best known for his Mistborn series and for finishing the Wheel of Time series.
Some minor spoilers below, you have been warned.
Steelheart is, in essence, a novel about superheroes and what happens when actually they turn out not to be heroes but ruthless megalomaniacs. While I enjoy the traditional Marvel & DC approach to superpowers my preference leans much more towards gritty and dark settings. One of the things that Marvel & DC rarely do (and that bugs the hell out of me) is actually alter the world, superheroes are instead an extra layer that just sits on top of the real world. Earth shattering events may happen but in the long run they don’t really change the world much. Not so with Steelheart, which sets super powered individuals (referred to as Epics in the novel) as ruthless tyrants who have seized power and now rule fiefdoms and city states while regular humans try to maintain something that resembles a normal life. The book follows David Charleston, a teenager in what used to be Chicago and his obsession with taking down the Epic ruling the city, Steelheart. What makes David so sure he can take down this supposedly invincible and unstoppable dictator? Simple, he knows a secret nobody else does, he has seen Steelheart bleed. From there the book launches into David’s attempts to join the Reckoners (an anti Epic resistance group) and his obsession with defeating Steelheart (given this is all in the blurb for the book I’m not classing it as spoilers).
From the get go the book moves at a fast pace, which helps to give it an action movie like feel. The highly complex and intricate plot style that Sanderson used for the Mistborn novels is absent, in part because this is marketed as a Young Adults novel (though don’t let that put you off, in my experience the category often showcases some of the most interesting work) but also because it is playing to genre. The superpowered genre isn’t one that has ever heavily invested in difficult plots and for Steelheart it feels right to play to that aspect while simultaneously ignoring or going against many other aspects we’ve come to expect from traditional comics / stories. Similarly the characters, while not as deep and nuanced as Kelsier or Vin (from the Mistborn trilogy) are generally believable and likeable while avoiding slipping into the grim and stoic stereotypes who never find reason to smile or show a bit of humanity.
I have only one major issue with the book, which concerns the Epics themselves. Each Epic, in addition to their superpowers possesses a weakness, something that negates some or all of their abilities. In and of itself I haven’t got a problem with this, the Krytonite factor is after all another major aspect of the genre. What bugs me however is how obscure some of the weaknesses are. Some weaknesses are associated with the powers of the Epic but many just seem to be utterly random, without using examples directly from the book we’re talking about things similar to ‘the second Tuesday of the month’, ‘pepperoni pizza’ or ‘people that look like Harrison Ford’. Given the Reckoners often research these weaknesses before targeting an Epic the obscurity of many just seems like looking for a needle in the proverbial haystack. At least if they were always associated with the powerset there would be an element of informed investigation.
All in all though I thoroughly enjoyed Steelheart, to the extent that I read through it in a single sitting (something I’ve not done in a long time). So if you’re looking for an entertaining, fast paced read this Christmas break I would highly recommend you give it a look.