Steelheart: In Which Superheroes are Not Super

Steelheart

“I’ve seen Steelheart bleed. And I will see him bleed again.” Thus opens Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart, a YA novel set on a post-apocalyptic Earth.

Ten years ago, Calamity appeared in the sky. No one knows what it is or why it showed up, but they know what it did: gave ordinary people incredible powers. These people are called Epics, and their powers range from illusion to invincibility to control of the elements.

But Epics are not superheroes, as protagonist David discovers in the book’s prologue. He and his father are at a bank when Steelheart shows up. David’s father shoots him, the only one to ever draw blood from the invincible man, and is brutally murdered for it. Steelheart then decimates the bank and everyone in it, except David, who manages to escape. No one will ever know of Steelheart’s weakness if he has anything to say about it.

That was the day Steelheart took control of Chicago, now known as Newcago. Across the world, Epics battle for domination of cities, destroying anyone who gets in their way. Supervillains abound, but not a single Epic uses his or her powers to be a superhero.

David makes it his life’s quest to learn Steelheart’s weakness and get revenge for his father’s death, and he finally has his chance. He joins the Reckoners, a guerilla group of ordinary humans who fight back against the Epics as best they can. They are reluctant to accept him at first, but when he shows them his notes on Epics and their individual weaknesses, his life’s work, they take him on.

The Reckners have been striking at Epics for years, but they have never dared touch the most dangerous, like Steelheart and his various underlings. David and his information gives them the push they need to take the next step, and in the end, they face Steelheart.

Sanderson turns the idea of superheroes upside down in this novel. Epics are all villains, and ordinary people have to step forward and be the heroes, the ones who fight back. Comic book fans will recognize that genre translated into a novel with Steelheart, the descriptions and plot itself leaping straight from the pages of a comic as inspiration.

The main characters are well-rounded, with layered motivations and complex emotions about the work the Reckoners do. Prof, leader of the Reckoners, struggles with a lust for revenge even stronger than David’s, and fights his own dark side every day. Megan, the token beautiful young woman, turns out not to be a token, but instead a strong character in her own right. David develops a crush on her, but rather than descending into teenage angst and mush, his feelings and her response form an subplot of the book that ultimately has an important effect on the resolution. Steelheart, his command Epics, and his minions are fascinating villains, with unique identities and powers.

Steelheart is tightly plotted, with the intricate worldbuilding he is known for. The Epics’ powers are less defined than his usual logical, orderly magic systems, but their powers have individual rules and limitations, and David even comes up with a classification system for them.

Although the book moves rapidly, there is a section in the middle where the pace sags somewhat, when the Reckoners are preparing for their final showdown with Steelheart. A lot of planning happens with little forward movement, but it does not last long before the pace picks up again, and then it is a race to the finish. Several of the side characters are fairly one-dimensional, with only verbal quirks or one to two defining characteristics, when as members of the Reckoners, the reader would expect to see them more fully realized. David himself is almost too perfect for reader credulity. Despite having little to no training in the skills the Reckoners use in their attacks, David keeps up with the experienced Reckoners and is often a crucial part of the plan, which is odd, given his lack of experience and skills.

The plot twists were nicely foreshadowed, but not so obvious that most readers would see them coming. I guessed two twists before they happened, but I wasn’t sure of the details and was still surprised by the end of the book.

Steelheart is a book worth reading for anyone interested in superheroes or an adventure packed YA novel. Although it does not end on a cliffhanger, the book leaves several plot threads unresolved. First in a trilogy, Steelheart opens the door on a fascinating world and asks the question: What if superheroes were evil?

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