Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson
Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart is a young adult novel, it has a post-apocalyptic setting, and it’s about superheroes (super villains, actually). It’s like Sanderson collected the last five years of blockbuster movies and novels and condensed them into one work that could be adapted into a newer, even bigger blockbuster movie. I also think there’s video game potential.
Steelheart is not adapted from a specific comic series, though Sanderson does appear to have been inspired by some of the genre’s most popular titles. Here, a bizarro man of steel named Steelheart takes over Chicago, renames it “Newcago,” and begins a cruel reign of dominance. Steelheart is an Epic — he has superpowers like super strength and the ability to generate energy blasts from his extremities — and he appears to be invincible. However, one person, David, has seen Steelheart bleed. Unfortunately, Steelheart murdered David’s father immediately afterward.
David is not an Epic. He’s just an eighteen-year-old armed with a rifle, a need for vengeance, and exhaustive notes on how to defeat Steelheart and his Epic minions. When the novel begins, David thinks that he has found a way to join the Reckoners, a group of Bruce Wayne types who fight with gadgets, ingenuity, and improvisation rather than Epic powers. After some initial infodumps in which David compares his taxonomy of Epics against the Reckoners’ taxonomy, David is accepted. He focuses on defeating Steelheart, though he is frustrated that Megan, the most attractive Reckoner, isn’t attracted to him.
The strength of Steelheart, as any Brandon Sanderson fan might guess, is its plot. Sanderson keeps moving his Reckoners — broken into short, crisp chapters — towards a series of boss battles. There are twists and turns in each battle that keep them from becoming very repetitive. Sanderson’s pace is fast enough that many readers will be too busy to question his red herrings.
And like many popular young adult novels, such as Shusterman’s Unwind or Westerfeld’s Uglies, Steelheart has a provocative premise to lure readers. Here, America’s “best and brightest” are actually power mad, corrupt, and morally bankrupt. The Epics run the country into the ground as they seek to expand their control. A small group from the 99-percent decides that the time for violent resistance has arrived, and they are determined to overthrow Steelheart so that the people will have the freedom to take control of their own lives again.
Unfortunately for the people, the most interesting infodumps are devoted to the Epics, their superpowers, and their weaknesses. The Reckoners are characterized mostly through banter about weapons, and I found that I could distinguish one from another by how they serve David’s needs rather than by their personalities. David is attracted to Megan, not Tia, and he learns from the Prof, not Megan. Cody and Abraham, meanwhile, both offer light-hearted humor and good-natured advice, so they serve a very similar role. Steelheart and his minions, meanwhile, are flatly characterized as cruel, remorseless dictators who deserve to be killed.
David is interesting, but not, perhaps, in a way that Sanderson has intended. David is a nerd, he doesn’t have much of a sense of humor, and he’s not very smooth around Megan. In these ways, he recalls a conventional hero like Luke Skywalker. (There may be something to this comparison since David does come up with a plan to pick up a power converter at one point.) Luke Skywalker is not very interesting. Instead, he is a dependable, responsible, well-intentioned guy around whom morally questionable characters can gather. David, on the other hand, is actually a deeply disturbed teenager who is armed to the teeth and prepared to kill.
As much as I admired David’s improvisation and his quirky similes, I couldn’t help noticing that I was reading about a teenage role model who devotes all of his free time to plotting murders. David often pontificates on the benefits of killing with rifles rather than handguns, and he later discovers an enthusiasm for remote-detonation explosives. Worse, David shows no remorse for his victims. Here’s our steel hearted hero after one murder: “I don’t care — and have never cared — which hand actually took his life. I made it happen. I’ve got his skull to prove it.” Perhaps David will come to tragically realize in following novels that the corrupting power the Epics wield is similar to his own use of explosives and rifles. I also found that Steelheart’s lack of character — he is cast as a bully and a murderer — made him a problematic antagonist for young David. As I finished Steelheart, I found myself surprised that a young adult publisher picked up a story that romanticizes a character like David in today’s climate of public shootings.
The publishers must have been convinced by Steelheart’s other strengths, which are likely to please many readers. Although Steelheart lacks a love triangle — so far — it offers a quick read, a trilogy publication from one of SFF’s most dependable authors, and a lot of action. Steelheart may be a page-turner, but its flat characterization did not convince me that I must continue reading this series. Further, Sanderson’s young adult hero lacks the deep sense of responsibility we see in Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching, the ability to question one’s motivations that we see in John Green’s heroes, or even the righteous heroism and leadership of Harry Potter. For now, I’d hand books by any one of those authors to young adult readers before I’d recommend Steelheart.
I’m mostly in agreement with Ryan’s comments about Steelheart. This is high-octane movie-type action with flat characters. I’m not quite as concerned as Ryan is about the trigger-happy part because David’s murderous rage applies only to the really bad dudes who are killing innocent people and need to be stopped. I think there are a few interesting ethical questions for teenage readers, but mostly this is a popcorn fantasy and I don’t really care what happens next. MacLeod Andrews does a great job with the audio narration.
The Reckoners — (2013-2016) Young adult. Publisher: From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Mistborn Trilogy, Brandon Sanderson, comes the first book in a new, action-packed thrill ride of a series – Steelheart. 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.
I really enjoyed this book personally, so I was quite surprised by the score you gave it. I don’t read a lot of what is labelled YA fiction (Steelheart is probably the first in years, and I mostly read it because it was Sanderson) but it seemed to me that the only thing that made it YA at all was the fact that the characters all used made-up swearwords instead of actual ones.
I didn’t have the same problems you had with the characters either – I found them to be sufficiently fleshed out for the speed at which the book moved. Megan especially I think was more than just a character who existed to passively reject David, especially given the ending. I didn’t find the book as info-dumpy as you suggest in the review either, though it’s possible that I found them sufficiently interesting that I just didn’t notice (possible, as I love this superhero-esque stuff, so I could probably read an entire book of info-dumps on the subject and be happy.)
As I said though, I don’t read a lot of YA novels (I’ve not read any of the ones that you mentioned) so I don’t have any frame of reference to compare the specifics of that subgenre, but taken by itself I really enjoyed it.
I was surprised at the rating as well. I’m starting to feel like you guys need to re-learn how to enjoy these books in the spirit in which they are given.
This book was fun, funny and deftly avoided many of the overused and boring tropes in many YA books.
It’s obvious from the conclusion of his review, not to mention the other YA books reviewed on this site by Ryan that he’s perfectly capable of appreciating YA books. I therefore question the use of the word ‘re-learn’…
Regardless, if the book is morally empty, this is every reason to give it a ‘low score’. It may pile on the action, the violence, the entertainment, but if it lacks all other meaningful content, then it’s just more pulp, i.e. an average book which is precisely where 2.5 stars puts it. If Sanderson proves to have higher ambitions and Steelheart is just Act I of a larger arc which sees David become a self-actualized character, I assume the current state of the story can be forgiven. But until then gun-loving young men are not an ideal–Americans especially–should strive for…
Ryan, do you think that your job as a high school teacher has anything to do with how you view this story? I teach young adults, too, and unfortunately school shootings is something we worry about and prepare for. I wonder if we are less tolerant of this sort of protagonist?
(To others: I haven’t read the book yet, but I will.)
Steelheart is marketed to a YA audience by Sanderson and his publishers. So I tried to keep their intentions in mind while reading Steelheart.
Here’s David describing Megan, who has just killed Fortuity, one of the Epics. She is standing over his corpse:
“Megan pulled Fortuity’s body off the hood and checked for a pulse. ‘Dead,’ she said. Then she shot the body twice in the head. ‘And double dead, to be certain.'”
Megan kills two people at the start of Steelheart. Both times, she confirms the death and then shoots the body again. Moments after killing Fortuity, David and Megan have to run off before they can be spotted. As David runs off, we are given his reaction to what Megan has just done:
“She can shoot like a dream and she carries tiny grenades in her top, a bit of my addled mind thought. I think I might be in love.”
Charming, right? I have already quoted David holding a human skull in the review.
As Gary and Jesslyn point out, Steelheart can be read as a noirish adventure, but it has already been labeled before we open the first page. Even putting aside all of the YA stickers and labels on its cover, the language, sentence structure, and pace of Steelheart all suggest that it was written for young adults and invite a response that takes into consideration its purpose.
For what it’s worth, I can imagine Steelheart working quite well as a noirish graphic novel written like Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns.
So it’s not a review of how good the book is, but rather how appropriate it is for the intended audience?
Not at all, Doug. There are many things that make a book good, such as premise, characterization, and plot. The review points out that the plot has pace, and that the characters — especially the villains — lack depth. Cultural context and intended audience can also shape how a story is received, and the premise is provocative in part because of its cultural context. The hero, within its cultural context and with its audience in mind, will be problematic for many readers. The review also points out that Sanderson, who has built a following outside of YA, has a fan base that, largely, will enjoy Steelheart. Regular YA readers, however, may find it lacking compared to its peers.
As a mother of teenage boys and a teacher of young adults who has to listen to presentations from campus police about what we should do if students become violent (this is a serious concern on any middle school, high school or college campus), I have to say that I’m concerned about that kind of content in a book marketed to young adults.
I’ve mentioned several times in my own reviews that I didn’t think certain material was appropriate for YA books (e.g. Steven Gould’s jumper series) and I’ve rated the books lower for that reason. It’s just part of how we do things here at FanLit.
I do think that David’s “kill them all” mentality will be addressed in future books, for reasons that I won’t go into here for spoilers, but involve the title character of the next book.
Also, your comments about David holding a skull make me realize that there is a reasonable comparison to be made between David and Hamlet.
I agree that it is possible that the second novel’s title suggests that David might be forced to confront his brutality, and I’d pick up the next two books if it turns out that Sanderson is attempting a tragic arc inspired by Hamlet.