Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson
Reviewed by A. S. Moser
30 October 2013
Imagine a world where something appears in the sky, "like a bright red star or comet" (p. 21)—call it Calamity—causing ordinary humans to gain superhuman abilities—call them Epics. The abilities manifested by Epics run the entire gamut of possibility (and impossibility): there are Epics who can alter what you see, Epics who can sense the future, Epics who can become incorporeal, like ghosts; there are also Epics who can shoot energy bolts from their hands, manipulate raw elements, and fly. So far, this sounds not unlike the comics many of us are familiar with. But in Brandon Sanderson's latest novel, Steelheart, he adds a further twist: though supervillains abound, no superheroes step forward to save us.
The world that emerges from this scenario is a frightening, dangerous place, as Epics battle each other for domination of cities and their human subjects. Governments are powerless to stop them; when the title character, Steelheart, decides to seize the city of Chicago and declare himself emperor, only other Epics challenge him. The US government passes the Capitulation Act, which grants "all Epics immunity from the law. . . . The government eventually declared men such as Steelheart to be natural forces, like hurricanes or earthquakes" (p. 13). Ordinary people have little choice in the matter, and must go about their lives as best they can. Which leads to the novel's prologue: eight-year-old David is in a Chicago bank with his father, who is trying to secure a loan. Then an Epic named Deathpoint enters the bank and starts killing everyone.
This is the day that Steelheart takes Chicago. His powers are manifold: shooting energy beams from his hands, flight, invincibility, and the ability to turn inanimate matter into steel. Think Superman, but without the conscience. At the bank, David's father—who mistakenly believes Steelheart to be the superhero the world has been waiting for—saves Steelheart's life by killing Deathpoint. But on its path to Deathpoint his bullet grazes Steelheart's cheek, causing him to bleed—for the first and only time. Though it is unclear just what Steelheart's weakness is, he kills everyone in the bank, then returns with another Epic who buries the entire bank deep underground. Then, for good measure, Steelheart kills all the rescue workers. Afterward he initiates "the Great Transfersion . . . by which he transform[s] most of Chicago—buildings, vehicles, streets—into steel," including part of Lake Michigan, which becomes "a glassy expanse of black metal" (p. 17). There is one small problem with Steelheart's attempt to bury—literally—all knowledge of his weakness: little David escapes.
While reviewing The Emperor's Soul for this magazine back in August, I noted that Sanderson's work typically employs "meticulously designed magical systems, each of which has its own logic, rules, and costs." While Epic powers are less understandable than Sanderson's magical systems, and the text notes that they often bend or defy the laws of physics, this does not mean that they lack logic, rules, or costs. Steelheart's first chapter picks up ten years after the prologue's events, with an eighteen-year-old David whose life revolves around his Epic obsessions: studying them; documenting, verifying, and classifying their powers; finding the "rules" behind their powers and weaknesses. In many ways, his story is not unlike that of Joel in Sanderson's previous novel, The Rithmatist (2013). Both boys lose their fathers young, and both become obsessed with learning all they can about powers they themselves lack. Both must go on journeys of self-discovery and, with the help of a quirky cast of friends, confront the fears looming from their pasts in order to save everything—and everyone—they hold dear. As a basic story arc, this is one of Sanderson's favorites, but an even more consistent motif throughout his work is the importance of research and researchers. This connection has already been made in a previous review, but suffice it to say that despite all the inconsistencies inherent in superpowers, or perhaps because of them, this is a world that is waiting for a researcher like David to come along.
Because here's the thing: in a world of monstrous men and women with godlike powers, the only way of fighting back is with information. And some people do fight back: the Reckoners. Naturally, they're idols of David's, and he makes it his mission to join their ranks. When he hears a rumor they're back in town, he deduces who their target is and goes to watch—only things go wrong, and, in a move that he'll repeat several times throughout the book, he improvises. What follows is a scantily-clad, beautiful young woman, a car chase, explosions, soldiers, a gun fight. It's a scene that would be right at home in any graphic novel.
The book's homage to comics is one of its more interesting strengths, but also occasionally a weakness. Visual cues are numerous and evocative: "I hustled down the dark street on a steel sidewalk, passing in and out of pockets of light" (p. 30), and "He lit up a cigarette as he walked, a flash of light in the dark, followed by the coal-red sizzle of the tip hanging in the air before him" (p. 32). But the visuals occasionally come across as a little too incredulous: the beautiful young woman, Megan, kills an Epic by firing two guns at the same time: "She checkmated him in the air with two shots. . . . A gun in each hand, one of them a rifle?" (p. 44). Just after that, she pulls something out of her top: "A small cylinder, like a lipstick case" (ibid), which turns out to be an explosive. Somewhat later, David reflects, "She can shoot like a dream, and she carries tiny grenades in her top . . . I think I might be in love" (p. 45). These images of Megan may be familiar to fans of comics, perhaps, but other readers might find them too stylized, or even objectifying.
This isn't to say Megan is only a hot-girl-in-comics fetishization, however. After this first glimpse of her, she proves to have hidden depths, and becomes one of the more interesting (for readers) and difficult (for David) characters in the book. Megan oscillates between a very reserved approval of David and an irritated, cold disgust—initially with no explanation for each emotional shift. This isn't just your typical boy-misunderstands-girl scenario, however; their miscommunications play an important role in the development of the story. Trying to figure her out, and get her to see him as a valuable addition to the team, provides David with a side story that helps readers see him as human, and fill in his otherwise monomaniacal focus on Steelheart.
The rest of the Reckoner cell is full of characters who walk the line between comic stock and interesting by having odd characteristics: Abraham, a very large, typical heavy munitions expert, is also, like David's father, a Faithful, someone who believes good Epics will save them; Prof, the founder of the Reckoners, is the shadowy mastermind and father figure, but with manic mood swings and a thirst for vengeance even deeper than David's; then there's the less interesting sniper, Cody, a Southerner who affects Scottish speech patterns; finally, the engine must have run dry on the tech wizard, Tia, a red-head who . . . drinks too much cola. Really.
One other character trait of interest is David's: in addition to his Epic obsession, and newly-developed Megan obsession, he's also very bad at making metaphors—and very self-aware about it. "Megan's eyes could have drilled holes through . . . well, anything, I guess. I mean, eyes can't normally drill holes through things, so the metaphor works regardless, right? Megan's eyes could have drilled holes through butter" (p. 98). Another stand-out: "The beam of invisible light pierced the dark tendrils like a laser through a pile of sheep" (p. 243). Similar instances appear every couple of pages, until readers may find themselves wondering, as I did, what the point of it all is. Depending on one's temperament, these can be either very funny or slightly irritating. You could argue that they serve to keep the narrative light-hearted, but as a fan of the author and his writing, I want them to mean something more—a refreshing twist on static, trite metaphors; a commentary on David's failure with social cues; perhaps a tongue-in-cheek meta-criticism on the futility of comparisons, since the novel cannot help but be compared to comics. In the end I'm not convinced they fully rise to the occasion.
Issues of characterization and narrative voice aside, the story itself manages to be mysterious, tense, and exciting. As the team grows closer, they also approach the inevitable—and unprepared for—showdown with Steelheart. David has his own unarticulated suspicions about the group, and with more than ample foreshadowing readers will develop these into the notion that it harbors a mole—but Sanderson throws in enough red herrings to keep readers guessing. There are motorcycle chases, high-powered energy weapons, and an incursion into a power plant that goes awry. At each step we learn a little more, but so, too, do the mysteries deepen. As the characters plan their attacks, the text begins to take on the feel of a heist story, with all the positive associations that calls to mind from the first Mistborn novel (2006). This is more than enough to leave readers with an enjoyable experience throughout the novel, but there's a final layer here that helps raise this from an interesting and inventive novel into one that leaves this reviewer eager for the sequel: the question of power.
David spends a lot of the time he isn't fretting over Megan speculating on Epics and their powers. Often, this leads to questions about where their powers come from, and also why there are no "good" Epics: "Did the Epics kill because Calamity chose—for whatever reason—only terrible people to gain powers? Or did they kill because such amazing power twisted a person, made them irresponsible?" (p. 74). Later, he finds out that Epics were subjected to tests in the early days, and not always willingly: "Was that why so many were evil? They resented this testing?" (p. 89). Later still, when faced with the possibility of having to kill some regular humans to get to the Epics, he thinks, "For the first time in my life, I found myself nearly as worried about what I might end up doing as I was about what someone might do to me. It was an uncomfortable situation. What we were doing was, basically, terrorism. But we're the good guys, I told myself. . . . Of course, what terrorist didn't think he or she was the good guy?" (p. 179). Then, when he asks Megan her thoughts, she tells him she thinks Epics are "a test of what we'll do, if we have power. Enormous power. What would it to do us? How would we deal with it?" to which he responds, "If the Epics are an example of what we'd do with power, then it's better if we never get any" (p. 210).
These larger questions aren't just idle speculation, either; the plot picks them up and uses them as an underlying theme. What costs are the Reckoners willing to accept to kill Steelheart? In a world ridden with starvation and warfare, the relatively prosperous city of Newcago might seem a good tradeoff for the dictatorial rule of Steelheart; so if our heroes are able to end his reign, what happens to the regular people left behind? Prof's answer is that Steelheart must die no matter what, and the people must look to themselves. This is how David once felt, but over the course of the story he begins to have his doubts, particularly when Megan confides that she doesn't believe Steelheart deserves to die. David's thirst for vengeance comes up against an unexpected obstacle here, and how he negotiates the conflict helps his character rise above youth humor and girl troubles.
The answer to the question posed by the book's premise—in a world of supervillains, where are the heroes to save us?—is answered in the first few pages by David's dying father: "Sometimes son . . . you have to help the heroes along" (p. 7). If it takes David the entire novel to realize just what that means, we can hardly fault him—it's a fun journey. Readers looking for a repeat of Sanderson's Hugo-winning performance from The Emperor's Soul may be in for a bit of a disappointment here as the author tailors his narrative for a younger readership. And the story may seem familiar to readers of his previous young adult offering, The Rithmatist, as Steelheart is a darker, deeper, more complex spin on a similar framework. But those looking for an action-packed thrill ride that explores the familiarly awesome world of comics in awesomely unfamiliar ways will be well-rewarded, and disappointed only by the discovery that the story doesn't end here, and that they'll have to wait at least another year for the sequel.