Thursday, December 10, 2015

Steelheart Book Review

by The Wanderer

Author: Brandon Sanderson
Publisher: Delacorte
Genre: Urban Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: Reckoners Book One
Pages: 386

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I learned a lot about how far a young adult novel could go while reading Steelheart.  It doesn’t matter how many dead bodies there are, or how violently someone is killed – just as long as there’s no graphic sex, a fast pace, and a romantic plot … it can be a young adult novel.

That being said, Brandon Sanderson’s foray into writing young adult books is a success, albeit a violent one.  The concept of this book – which is basically a bunch of rebellious citizens fighting and killing epics (the epic equivalent would be Marvel and D.C. heroes) – is one that turns the superhero formula on its head.

While Steelheart on the surface may look like it’s a traditional good vs evil story, it isn’t. Sanderson takes the time to explore the morality of the decisions being made by the protagonists, and to ask pertinent questions about the corrupting influence of power. It’s the depth of the themes, the haunting visual setting, and the breakneck pace that make Steelheart the great adventure that it is.

After an event known as Calmity occurs, people in the world start turning into epics, which are superpower enhanced people.  But with their newly enhanced powers the epics turn evil, carving out parts of the known world, toppling governments and oppressing the masses.

In what was formerly Chicago, a powerful epic named Steelheart rules and cannot be defeated because he is invincible.  A group of assassins (called Reckoners) who specialize in killing epics arrive in the city. David, an eighteen year old wants to join the Reckoners because Steelheart killed his father, and because he’s seen Steelheart bleed.

For those who are familiar with Brandon Sanderson, the plot summary of Steelheart should sound similar to another Sanderson book – Mistborn: The Final Empire.  Both stories are centered around a heist like group that’s focus is on bringing down a super powered individual.  But that’s where the similarities stop, and it would appear the author is very conscious of making the two stories the same. The big difference between these two series’, besides the setting and magic systems, is the focus.  Mistborn is focused on the politics of ruling, while Steelheart focuses on revenge.

The setting in Steelheart, like all of Sanderson’s books, is very visual.  In Newcago, what was formerly Chicago, Steelheart has transformed all inanimate objects into steel – the buildings, the streets, lamp posts … everything.  Steelheart’s right hand man, Nightwielder has made it so the sun never shines, covering the city in perpetual darkness. These physical aspects haunt the entire story, supporting the dark tendencies of the plot and characters.

At one point in Steelheart, Brandon Sanderson throws in the famous phrase, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  This is really what is at the heart of the story.  The superhero powers of the epics give them great power, and it turns them evil.  It’s one of Steelheart’s great metaphors – which is ironic considering there are plenty of bad metaphors in Steelheart, so much so, that it’s turned into frequent, but funny, recurring motif.  Getting back on track, Sanderson frequently questions the morality of his protagonists decisions – will killing Steelheart make the world a better place?

The primary weaknesses of Steelheart center around character stereotyping – which is mostly a problem with the secondary characters who can’t grow past their stereotypes.  The primary characters begin as stereotypes, and they are David as the heroic protagonist, Megan as the romantic love interest, and Prof as the leader of the Reckoners.  Sanderson eventually develops these characters out of their stereotypes, carving believable personalities for them.

The heist members that aren’t Megan, David, or Prof don’t grow too far past their character stereotypes, and this causes them to become one dimensional – Abraham is the religious one, Cody is the funny one, and Tia is the smart one. Each secondary character does very little to grow, and although their personalities are different, these characters don’t feel natural.

This is the fasted paced novel Brandon Sanderson has written up until this point, and at just under 400 pages, it’s also one of his shortest.  It’s constantly running, only to pause briefly so readers can catch their breath, before taking off faster and harder than before. This is a story that should have no problem drawing in ardent fantasy fans as well as the casual ones.

Score: 8.9

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