Book Title: Steelheart (Reckoners Series #01)
Author: Brandon Sanderson
Number of pages: 386
There are no heroes.
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,
(re: Goodreads @ Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson)
Should this book be picked up? the tl;dr spoiler-less review:
– Reads like a comic-book-turned-novel with a cinematic feel in the writing.
– An information treasure-hunt in discovering an Epic’s kryptonite (a weakness, if you will).
– Lot’s of quirky metaphors/similes which readers will either love or hate.
– World building is materialized impeccably even during fast-paced action sequences.
Basically the “what-if?” situation if superheroes of the Marvel franchise turned baddie and there was a underground organisation of ragtag misfits banding together with dreams bigger than themselves. I gleefully ate this book and it was delectable for the most part – it wasn’t always perfect, nor was it an extremely refreshing idea (when you read and watch enough comics/mangas anyways…) but the writing and pacing drew me in and never let go.
Time to ramble:
Disclaimer: Potential spoilers inherent to this review from here onward.
[“I know, better than anyone else, that there are no heroes coming to save us. There are no good Epics. None of them protect us. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”]
The prologue is rad. There’s almost a cinematic feel to the writing that could play well on screen. It sets up the world and the circumstances that tie into the books namesake in an unfathomably quick sequence of tension and action. It’s exciting in ways that should leave you needing more information although it does falter at originality of many superhero-esqe stories that use young-child seeking vengeance plotting as a starting point. But hey, if you can get over that, then there’s a chance you might enjoy this book.
So what becomes of 8-year-old toddler David Charleston? Fast forward into Newcago (that’s New + Chicago), a once bustling metropolis now shrouded in darkness and overlooked by an Epic regime. You could have honestly taken “New + [city name]” and the story would still turn out the way it is. Epics are essentially normal humans turned superheroes through an event known to readers as Calamity. The running theme for these Epic-beings are a reminder that newfound power lends itself to corruption; that it is in human nature to buy into a dog-eat-dog world if power is absolute. I know — it’s generic and nothing mind-blowing or new but it’s in the intricacies of the world and characters that really sell this narrative. David, now 18 and out of the Factory (a labour-intensive educational institution), is left to fend for himself in a city overlooked by Steelheart; the strongest and unfathomably indestructible Epic that rules Newcago. But David knows that’s not the case and his flame of hope burns with the prospect of joining the Reckoners, an Epic resistance group, which he haphazardly joins due to his involvement in one of their missions. He has grown up essentially on the bare minimum and spent what little money he’s earned in buying information regarding the Epics; each one being added to his repository of knowledge. In joining the Reckoners, the majority of the novel is built around uncovering the answers to Steelhearts kryptonite and ultimately David’s need to avenge his father’s death.
[“I was half worried there wouldn’t be any. Good thing I brought my four-leaf clover on this operation.”
“Four-leaf clover?” Megan said with a snort as she fished something out of her pack.
“Sure. From the homeland.”
“That’s the Irish, Cody, not the Scottish.”
“I know,” Cody said without missing a beat. “I had to kill an Irish dude to get mine.”]
For the world of the Fractured States, or Newcago specifically, it’s structurally majestic in a rustic way with its glistening sheen of metallic steel but also exudes the dangerous, atmospheric, and eerie qualities of a society ruled by Steelheart. Whether life is better off with an Epic providing provisional benevolence is completely up for interpretation. The infrastructure still holds its contemporary appeal but is detailed enough to be visually compelling and believable. Moreover, the detailing is not lost in peak action-oriented scenes and is woven with the thematic choices and history of the city with Calamity in mind. It’s integrated and deftly explained with proper pacing of information without being too much of an information overload. An aspect I enjoyed was the creation of the labyrinth-like catacombs of a dwelling the impoverished live in. This added another layer of impeccable detailing to the world and the characters themselves; almost like a shadow within a shadow.
Yet for the entire stellar world building this novel offers, there are evident shortcomings that left me with some uncertainty. While some of these will likely be uncovered in later instalments (such as Calamity’s influence over Epic superpowers), other facets should have returned full circle within this novel. My main concern deals with Nightwielder and the scope of his never-ending darkness in which he shrouds Newcago (or maybe even the world?). Okay, that’s fine – a firmly plausible superpower until you consider the potential (or should be apparent) physical and mental drain it would have on an Epic. His power reminds me a lot of Kaname Tosen’s released ability in Bleach (a manga), but even then there are limitations with his abilities. This isn’t the same for Nightwielder. While the Reckoners (by proxy of David) do uncover his kryptonite (or weakness), it still seems a bit bewildering that he’s (assumed to be) able to utilise his powers without limitations or suggestion of strain. To further this, you can consider Conflux (an Epic with abilities to gift and supercharge things with electricity, essentially) and his initial weak-bodied appearance in the novel. This leaves me a bit perplexed regarding the physical strain exhibited by some and not other Epics.
[“Sometimes doing things we used to do reminds us of who we used to be, and not always in good ways.”]
What isn’t baffling is the incessant need for the various metaphors/similes and new-age vocabulary. I can understand if David uses these new words (sparks, calamity, slontze) as a ‘substitute” for profanity providing these words were immersed in the environment he grew up in. Consider that at eight, prior to Calamity, he would have limited knowledge of curse words in general. Then by growing up in the Factory with other kids starved for present-day multimedia laden with ‘old’ profanity (f-bombs and the like from Netflix and HBO) it would be certainly believable if he made up his own anger-driven words himself. The beef I have with the vocabulary extends toward the Reckoners themselves, who should be old enough to have been through modern profanity prior to calamity and would fall back on their old curse words. Furthermore, I’ve read reviews that chirp the shit out of the metaphors/similes in dialogue but I actually wasn’t too bothered by it. Actually, I found it to be humorous in a bad-yet-funny kind of way. In many ways, it ties into David’s character growth – his seeking of learning new figures of speech is comparable to his hastened life lessons with the Reckoners. He certainly does get better with his “metaphors” as the narrative progresses.
[“I killed my wife,” Edmund said absently, leaning back, staring at the ceiling. “It was an accident. Electrified the counter while trying to power the microwave. Stupid thing, eh? I wanted a frozen burrito. Sara died for that.” He tapped the table. “I hope yours died for something greater.”]
But what comes off as experimental learning through metaphors is sometimes difficult to digest for secondary characters immediately relishing in their kinship. This results in mingling that feels invariably forced. However, I certainly cared for each and every single member of the team despite some individuals lacking the emotional fortitude not driven by purpose. The team dynamics as a whole was intriguing due to the mishmash of personalities and backgrounds, with Abraham and Cody being my two favourite characters (aside from David). These characters were interesting and can be seen in multiple angles due to the limited information provided per character allowing readers to question their belongingness to the troupe. But the most impressive thing, I found, was that Sanderson brought to life various persons of colour (POC) in this narrative with distinct voices that held their own.
[“I’d found that sloppiness put people off guard. If my landlady came snooping up here, she’d find what she expected. A teenager just into his majority blowing his earnings on an easy life for a year before responsibility hit him. She wouldn’t poke or prod for secret compartments.”]
Our protagonist, David, is crafted quite well if you can look beyond his poor attempt at similes. He’s not extremely well-rounded from a physical front but it’s his intellect that really sells it for me. The fact that he’s seemingly conveyed like a John Doe while his thoughts are overclocking in rationalisation is relevant to individuals today. Without physical finality, the connection is there that he could be just like any reader: always thinking, sometimes awkward and quirky, but rarely ungrounded in his actions. The only flaw I found was that his success and survival in an apparent morbid and dark world is rather high. I’m not implying that Enforcement (the popo’s of Newcago) should shoot him in the face so that he can experience suffering and understand consequence…but something within reason to demonstrate that he is still flawed and learning from his mistakes in a high-stakes, brutish city would be nice.
[“You sounded impressed with me at first—Prof might never have listened to my plan at all if you hadn’t said what you did. But since then you’ve acted like I was a gorilla at your buffet.”
“A … what?”
“Gorilla at your buffet. You know … eating all your food? Making you annoyed? That kind of thing?”
“You’re a very special person, David.”
“Yeah, I take a specialness pill each morning. Look, Megan, I’m not letting go of this. The whole time I’ve been with the Reckoners, it seems like I’ve been doing something that bothers you. Well, what is it? What made you turn on me like that?”
She looked away.
“Is it my face?” I asked. “Because that’s the only thing I can think of. I mean, you were all for me after the Fortuity hit. Maybe it’s my face. I don’t think it’s too bad a face, as far as faces go, but it does look kind of stupid sometimes when I—”]
The narrative also hints at romantic themes but it certainly isn’t in-your-face love as it mainly involves David fantasizing about Megan, the non-weak female lead who lacks emotional depth. As a reader, you come to expect differently at the end of the novel but even then I’m not sure about her stoic appeal. But the couple I did ship and was most invested in was Tia and Cody. Yep, they’re golden.
As I previously mentioned, one of the themes regards the symbiotic relationship between power and corruption. To extend this idea, this novel wishfully engages the fact that Epics are not inherently evil but succumb to such measures when they overexert their powers. From a narrative and developmental standpoint, okay, fine, sure. I just hope it doesn’t turn out to be baddie Epics turning over a new stone and everyone being a-ok with living harmoniously with Epics who has caused all this drama llama behaviour to begin with. To tangent this idea, we can’t forget about considering the philosophical conundrums of morality in slaying Epics. From David’s tunnel visioning perspective, it’s easy to dismiss the potential for David to consider anything but killing Steelheart. But it’s actually the reverse. In being alone, (save for his new family with the Reckoners) the stakes and implications are that much higher to those around him. So he’s deciding not for himself (as much as he likes to believe so), but actually implicating those in Newcago, the Reckoners, and the Fractured States.
Overall, I was fairly entranced by this piece of writing. So it has questionable “wtf?” moments at times but it wasn’t to the extreme that it detracted from my enjoyment. In the stretch of things, this narrative is more-or-less presented like a treasure hunt in discovering Steelheart’s kryptonite. But even if you put on your Indiana Jones hat, there are enough twists and turns coupled with the quick action sequences and witty dialogue that actually made flipping pages easy with unexpected plotting. The ending can be considered as standalone or as an introduction to the next installment. Either way, I appreciated this comic-book-turned-book and will eagerly wait for the next one.
[“The heroes will come … we might just have to help them along.”]
//end of long-winded rambling goes here.
I’m pretty good at telling myself to stick to one book then haphazardly opening one up the next minute and reading it through in like a day. So much win and fail.