Book Review: “Steelheart” by Brandon Sanderson

steelheart - vernon barford image
Image by Vernon Barford School (via flickr). Click image for source.

When he was eight years old, protagonist David Charleston watched his father die at the hands of Steelheart, a superhuman “Epic” with massively destructive powers and apparent invincibility. But David saw the Epic bleed, and he swears that he’ll see Steelheart bleed again. Now, ten years later, he’s setting out to join the ranks of the Reckoners, a group of ordinary human beings who fight Epics like Steelheart.

Ok, so I know there’s probably a fifty percent chance that you’re letting out a sigh and thinking, “ugh, not another superhero story.” And yep, you’re partially right. Steelheart is a mash up of several different genres – think Iron Man and The Hunger Games, with a little dash of Mission Impossible and Johnny English.

Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart offers an alternative look at the superhero narrative. Unlike most superhero fiction these days, this novel doesn’t focus on a superhero fighting a supervillian. Instead, the roles are reversed, and the superhumans, called “Epics,” have random powers (and even more random weaknesses) that slowly corrupt them. They end up ruling over mankind and fighting each other for dominion. And, for once in a superhero story, the ordinary human protagonist, David, actually stays human. He doesn’t gain superpowers to fight the bad guys; instead, he and his team rely on planning and teamwork.

At first glance, the villains in this novel seem amazingly cliché. The antagonistic Epics wear ridiculously flashy costumes, complete with billowing capes and facemasks, and adopt melodramatic pseudonyms like “Steelheart” and “El Brass Bullish Dude” (yep, that’s actually in the book). However, after a few chapters I realized that the clichés didn’t bother me. Sanderson has an amazing ability to bring his characters to life, and he writes the Epics evilly enough where they can actually get away with being stereotypical and absurd.

The novel is written from David’s perspective, and Sanderson writes the entire novel in words a young adult would actually use. He also creates the character of David as if he is a real person; he’s kind, compassionate, intelligent, and loyal to a fault, but he is by no means written as a “perfect” character. He’s self-conscious about his intellect, and absolutely hates being called a geek. He’s impulsive, a little immature (what 18-year-old guy isn’t?), and absolutely terrible with metaphors. Sanderson writes David’s internal dialogue so well, so believably, and so endearingly that it made me feel like I was riding along in David’s mind and seeing the world through his eyes.

David and the Reckoners have compelling and believable relationships with one another, and I genuinely wanted them to succeed in their mission to kill Steelheart. .And, though their goal is to take down as many Epics as possible in the long run, the Reckoners still feel pain and remorse for the people the Epics used to be.

The main theme of Steelheart is mainly David’s quest for revenge, but the novel also addresses the idea that power corrupts (quite literally, in this case). Although the setting is a post-apocalyptic Chicago, Sanderson emphasizes hope and perseverance. We also see a tiny theme of forgiveness through David’s journey, as he grows from hating all Epics to believing that some of them have the power for good.

Steelheart is full of epic fights, motorcycle chases, unexpected twists, and even a little bit of romance, and is, all in all, a must read for any science fiction or adventure fan.