Brandon Sanderson – Steelheart

So, after reading The Fifth Season, a major book hangover took hold of me. I tried reading ten different books that I had all been looking forward to, but nothing seemed right. Instead, I decided to pick something completely different from Jemisin’s magnificent post-apocalpytic novel.  And because I knew it would be exciting and could be read quickly, I went for Brandon Sanderson’s superhero series. This was exactly what I needed to get me back on my reading feet, so to speak.

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STEELHEART
by Brandon Sanderson

Published by: Gollancz, 2013
Ebook: 384 pages
Series: The Reckoners #1
My rating: 6/10

First sentence: I’ve seen Steelheart bleed.

Ten years ago, Calamity came. It was a burst in the sky that gave ordinary men and women extraordinary powers. The awed public started calling them Epics. But Epics are no friend of man. With incredible gifts came the desire to rule. And to rule man you must crush his wills.
Nobody fights the Epics…nobody but the Reckoners. A shadowy group of ordinary humans, they spend their lives studying Epics, finding their weaknesses, and then assassinating them.
And David wants in. He wants Steelheart – the Epic who is said to be invincible. The Epic who killed David’s father. For years, like the Reckoners, David’s been studying, and planning – and he has something they need. Not an object, but an experience.
He’s seen Steelheart bleed. And he wants revenge.

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This book has all the ingredients for a Hollywood blockbuster. Unfortunately, it also has about the same amount of depth. So one day, out of the blue, superheroes appear all over the world (although of course mostly the USA, because the rest of the world is not interesting, right?) but instead of being vigilantes helping keep the peace, they turn to evil and make the world a really shitty place.

I had a whole, level-headed review prepared but I deleted it all because I need to rant a bit. I liked the book for its entertainment value, don’t get me wrong. But I get the feeling that either Sanderson’s heart is not in this series as much as in his Mistborn universe or the Stormlight Archive, or he took this whole “writing for a teenage audience” thing a step too far. Because comparatively, this book reads very dumbed down. Sanderson can do better!

So, one day, supervillains popped up all over the world. But is it all over the world? The setting of David’s story is Newcago (a name so stupid it made me cringe every time it came up) and, from reading this book, it seems like the rest of the world doesn’t really exist. There are mentions of other places in the USA and, I believe, Paris comes up once. But there is no clue as to how the rest of the world coped with this event. We learn that Steelheart, the strongest of the Epics in the area, rules over Newcago. The pecking order among Epics is pretty clear. Those with the stronger powers (or better hidden weaknesses) are on top, while lesser Epics either work for them or die trying to take over.

But, again, what about other places? I didn’t really expect to find long explanations of how other countries handled the Epic problem but there isn’t even the slightest hint as to the effects Calamity had on the rest of the world. I very much doubt that the entire globe would react the same way (because duh). There must be places with a higher or lower Epic density, there must be safe havens without Epics, there must be cities and countries that work completely differently. Alas, we don’t know because America is all we get.

Fine, world-building rant out of the way, let me move on to the characters. They are your standard Ocean’s Eleven, heist story, Mission Impossible crew. One boss with a sinister past, one hacker, one gun specialist, one hot girl (who, OF COURSE, is the protagonist’s love interest), and so on. David joins the Reckoners almost by accident and manages to sway their plans so easily, it makes them look like fools. Now it’s all about David’s revenge on Steelheart for killing his father. To achieve this, they have to get rid of some other Epics first. And this part, the actual plot, was pretty gripping. There are edge-of-your-seat action scenes, moments of bonding between the characters, and secrets. Lots of secrets.

Some of these secrets are blatantly obvious which makes me think even more that Sanderson dumbed down his story on purpose. I know that he can set up awesome twists that are difficult or even impossible to guess. In Steelheart, the clues are all over the place so the surprise at the end isn’t all that surprising. The same goes for Steelheart’s weakness, the one thing the Reckoners need to find out in order to kill him. After so much build-up, after David’s careful, meticulous research, I expected something… well, epic. But Steelheart’s weakness, useful as it may be for him, was pretty meh.

There are some really cool ideas in this otherwise trope-laden  story. An entire city turned into steel, cool gadgets, and a Pokemon-like index of Epic’s weaknesses and strengths. The ideas are all there. What’s lacking is depth, in every aspect. The characters are cardboard and, with the exception of the reveals at the end, none of them really seem to have a backstory, none of them had lives before joining the Reckoners. Or at least the author didn’t find it important to show those lives to us. Even David’s past is wrapped up in a sentence or two. I don’t believe that a teenage boy, no matter how set on revenge he might be, does nothing else in his entire life than devote his time to killing one particular Epic.

So, overall, the only thing this book has going for it is plot and fast-paced writing. Which is exactly what I needed after the dense, deep, and truly epic The Fifth Season. So for me, Steelheart was the right book at the right time. But that doesn’t change the fact that there is very little meat to it. It’s fun, it’s a quick read, it has great action and cool ideas. If this book is on your TBR, save it for a time when you want something light and not too serious.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

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Second opinions:

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4 thoughts on “Brandon Sanderson – Steelheart

  1. Anonymous says:

    I will be a bit devil advocate here 🙂 (or try:) , btw sorry for my English)

    First I think Sanderson’s goal for book and whole series was book version of action filled superheroes comic, with all its good and bad. Good being action and not complicated fun, bad – lacking in character and world building.

    About world building.
    I would like to point out that book setting is post apocalyptic world from pov of teen who spend most of his life in that world. He doesn’t remember much of pre-Epics world.

    It might be no clear in book but there are no countries anymore, no Internet, no public tv, each city, bigger settlement is on its own, and Epics control information.

    Take away all current access to information from our world and we would hardly know what is happening in other cities, let alone in other countries.

    I get why you are disappointed, but at the same time whole setting made sense for me – take kid, destroy his whole world, make him focus on single thing – revenge because that helped him survive. Pack all this in superheroes action comic like bundle 🙂

    Plus I think series (3 books of main trilogy and novella) as whole is better – we get some more perspective, more secrets, some answers and better idea why Reckoners world look like it looks.

    Thats all said, I agree with you that its still definitely light reading for time when you want some popcorn level fun and action.

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    • Dina says:

      You’re probably right about what the point of the book was (take superhero comic tropes and turn them into a novel) – to which I must ask: why?
      There’s a chance to make something old and boring into something new and exciting. And that chance wasn’t taken.
      Thanks for the clarification about countries. There might no be any countries with proper governments left, but if Chicago turns into Newcago, I bet you other big cities (and maybe even tiny ones) have survived as well. We just don’t know because anything outside the US is irrelevant, apparently.
      I’ll probably read the sequels someday but I’m in no hurry.

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      • Peter says:

        “There’s a chance to make something old and boring into something new and exciting. And that chance wasn’t taken.”

        Comic superheroes arnt boring 😀 but I agree with you that Sanderson could write something a lot better, he already showed that he can with his other works.

        I would say that any light book about postapo world which will be read just after “The 5th Season” will seem flat and boring 🙂 and Steelheart unfortunately isn’t in the same league as “The 5th Season”.

        I wrote that series as whole is better, but I admit that I probably see/add more depth to Steelheart and series then someone can see at first glance.
        Its still not much better then Steelheart just that some threads adds more depth to world and characters, some perspective how it is like to live in world (ok in US part of world ) with Epics and some answers.

        About cities.
        Any bigger city mentioned in series is more or less controlled by Epic/s (yes all of them are in former USA territory ), and some like Chicago wouldn’t even survive without Epics (electric power in Chicago is provided by Epic).

        Other thing is that anyone can turn into Epic and first thing which new Epic do is to go on rampage, any settlement is always in danger of being destroyed so there are no safe zones.

        Plus I don’t think that adding global scale to book would help it much, it just don’t fit book idea I think – we could get info about Europe, Asia, Africa but still books idea was quest for revenge on single person.
        Newcago could be in any other country or on another continent and it wouldn’t change much to book so it didn’t bother me personally.
        What bothered me most in Steelheart was fact that all Epics were evil, I was afraid that Sanderson went simple “power corrupts” cliche and I waited to last book to get this explained 🙂

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        • Dina says:

          I guess you’re right. The Fifth Season wrecked me. 🙂
          Sure, this is about David and his very personal quest. But for me, a brief mention during the first few chapters would have been enough. “And all over the world, this and this happened.” Something along those lines. It would have been a great opportunity to come up with Epic names in other languages. Oh well, I wanted popcorn, I got popcorn. And I DID enjoy reading the book, simply for its fun factor and the fast-moving plot.

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