Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson may just be the best superhero story I’ve ever read.
It might be my favourite superhero story in any medium, not just the novel. That includes movies and comic books.
This was my first foray into Sanderson’s work and it hooked me immediately.
I love books that turn conventional genres on their heads. And Steelheart is definitely one of those books.
Steelheart is a superhero story with a massive twist because the superheroes, or Epics, are actually the bad guys.
The book is set in this dystopian otherworldly Chicago where many years previously a huge burst in the sky, called Calamity, gave powers to otherwise ordinary human beings. And then – instead of using their powers for good like you would normally imagine in a superhero story – they used their powers for evil.
One Epic in particular, Steelheart, is so powerful that he’s managed to install himself as emperor in the city. He’s basically invincible and he can kill whenever he wants.
A city of people living in fear, an underground subclass of people, then a further underground rebel group of people called the Reckoners who have spent years trying to find out each Epic’s weakness so they can fight back.
We see the world through the eyes of the main character David, a teenager who watched his father murdered by Steelheart. Since then, he’s spent every waking moment of his life researching Epics and trying to find their weakness.
The book kicks off when David manages to find and join the Reckoners and devise a plan for fighting back.
What I really love about this book can be summed up by some of Brandon Sanderson’s own advice to writers in the fantasy genre.
Sanderson came up with three laws for writing magic in the fantasy genre:
- Law 1: A writer’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.
- Law 2: The limitations of a magic system are more interesting than it’s capabilities. What the magic can’t do is more interesting than what it can do.
- Law 3: Expand upon what you already have before you add new stuff.
Why am I bringing this up in the context of a book we’re meant to be enjoying as readers?
Firstly, I’m bringing it up because Sanderson is bang on the money with his laws of magic.
You can look at any great fantasy story that has magic at its core and you can see that these three laws are very much at play.
What I love about Steelheart is that he follows these three laws relentlessly and that translates to a really cool interesting book.
Let’s look at the capabilities thing.
The central preoccupation of the characters, the Reckoners and David, while they try to fight the Epics, is trying to find out and exploit the Epics’ weaknesses.
So even though these Epics are seemingly immortal and all powerful and they have their own special abilities, the most interesting thing is:
What is their weakness?
What is their kryptonite?
And when they find out their weaknesses, they can kill these Epics.
In the grand scheme of the story, they’re really trying to find out Steelheart’s weakness. And that is really hard.
That makes for some really compelling drama and conflict.
And the law about expanding upon what you have before adding something new? Well, in Steelheart, Sanderson really nails the world but he doesn’t overwhelm you.
You learn things bit by bit along with David and you’ll only get new stuff once he has fully grasped what he’s just learnt.
So when the Reckoners introduce some new weapon or material to fight the Epics, you’re going to understand that fully first – its limitations and capabilities – before Sanderson introduces something else.
Really cool. Makes for a really smooth reading experience.
And, of course, solving the problems with magic – the reader has to understand that magic to get enjoyment out of it.
Even though it’s a fantasy, the world building is done so well that it really feels like you’re getting an education in the wonders of another world.
If you love fantasy or you love nerdy things like Magic the Gathering (of which, like Sanderson, I’m a huge fan), you’ll love this book.
Some of the characterisation can be a bit cliché but I feel like the cliché is there because it’s giving the reader something to grab onto – the book is quite different and turns a lot of stuff on its heard.
I think some of the clichés were deliberate because 1. this is a young adult book (good for a younger audience to cling onto) and 2. it’s a fantasy book and can’t deviate too far away from the expected norm.
Having said that, I do like the way the characters are drawn. They all have their separate desires. Their overarching desire is to defeat Steelheart but there is an interplay amongst the individual characters and it’s quite nice watching them talk and argue and figure each other out.
The pacing is also perfectly on point and makes you gobble up this book in a couple of sittings.
I think Steelheart is a good entrance point to Sanderson’s writing because his other series (like Mistborn) are a bit heavy whereas this is very easy to follow.
Steelheart summed up in five words:
Pure unbridled superhero awesome awesomeness.
Let me know what you think!