Dystopia of The Super-Heroes: A Review Of Brandon Sanderson’s “Steelheart”

Dystopia of The Super-Heroes: A Review Of Brandon Sanderson’s “Steelheart” July 29, 2016

steelheart cover

Mary and I have been thinking about adding reviews of new and recent fiction on Steel Mag for a month or two now. I was going to start with Brandon Sanderson’s most recent two Mistborn novels, Shadows of Self and Bands of Mourning (both excellent and to be reviewed in this space soon). But I found myself sorting trough the internet and learning that Sanderson had also recently finished his “Reckoners” series – a trilogy set outside the wider universe (called the “Cosmere”) in which most of his stories occur. So I picked up Steelheart for background reading- I figured I would read up to the recent release and review that if the series held my attention.

I found Steelheart so gripping that not only did I not want to put it down,  I wanted to tell you readers about it the minute I finished.

This was a genuinely fun read. It feels like the Reckoners’ world is darker than Sanderson’s other works- although I can’t honestly say it involves more human suffering or fewer horror elements than the first Mistborn Trilogy. The terrifying prologue sets the stakes for the story and is flatly more unsettling than any thing else Sanderson has written (the humans twisted into monsters that sometimes appear in Mistborn and being trapped by a ravening beast the size of a building in Words of Radiance can’t compete). Yet Sanderson deftly uses this opening sequence of mind-bending realistic horror, not to set the tone of book, but to create a mood and an environment that his cast resists on every page that follows. These are not brave heroes fighting a hopeless battle because they never lose hope, but clever and determined men and women who resist the invincible with determination because they know that the people of their world ought to be able to have hope. I expected something far darker than Mistborn, but instead was pleasantly surprised to find myself reading a tale that was almost light, even in the face of the terror that the violent and merciless Steelheart inflicts on his subjects. For me, the book was a page-turner, and I was reading with prior knowledge of Steelheart’s sole weakness, the outcome of the climatic battle, and the secret of the Reckoners.

The world of the Reckoners’ is earth, but with a twist – a new and horrible light (fittingly named “Calamity”) appeared in the sky perhaps a dozen years ago – an artificial satellite, a comet that has become trapped in Earth’s orbit, or something unknowable– and after the uncanny light of Calamity began to shine a portion of the population became superhuman. Unfortunately, they also became heartless, selfish and cruel. No heroes appeared – only the petty and sociopathic overlords of the new era of history. The most powerful of them is Steelheart, the overlord of what was once Chicago. Our protagonist, David, witnessed Steelheart’s first massacre on the day Steelheart annexed Chicago, its people, and all it contents as his personal property. As an eight-year old boy he witnessed his father brutally murdered by Steelheart, but he also witnessed something else- he saw the invincible Steelheart bleed. For while each of these new superhumans (called “epics”) has a unique and often seemingly physics-defying power set, each one also has one equally unique and bizarrely idiosyncratic weakness. David has seen Steelheart’s one weakness in play – his knowledge is the only thing that could allow anyone, human or epic, to challenge Steelheart. If only he could figure out from what he saw, just what Steelheart’s weakness is.

The book occurs ten years after the annexation of the city now known as “Newcago”. David has spent this decade not only aging to adulthood, but devotedly studying the epics, their powers and weaknesses and the one group who in any way resists epic rule- the Reckoners. He manages, not without difficulty, both to contact and join them by the end of part 1. The Reckoners are essentially assassins, but their targets are exclusively epics who are also wanton mass murderers beyond the reach of any form of government or human law (I don’t think that part of the story is much of an ethical hurdle). The real ethical challenge David finds himself facing is whether his quest to end Steelheart’s reign of terror is fair to the subjects of Newcago. Yes, these people live under a tyrant who, on any given day, might explode them with energy from his hands just to show off. But they also have many luxuries lost to a lot of the world- infrastructure, food, work and the like. Killing Steelheart is the only way to stop him from claiming more victims, but also risks these goods his reign has allowed. Ultimately David decides that the value of human freedom, together with that of not allowing humanity to completely despair of ever escaping epic rule,  weigh quite a bit- he concludes he is not ethically required to abandon his quest for vengeance. But Sanderson manages to tell the story carefully enough that his readers are left free to come to their own conclusions.

Typical of Sanderson, although not typical of fantasy writers generally, is the care to portray whole personalities and whole societies. While Sanderson’s heroes often have compelling reasons for engaging in violence and usually come to the conclusion they are justified in using it, I have yet to read a story from him where even the most ostensibly justified violence fails to raise ethical doubts for his characters.  The tone is very much more in an action-movie style rather than the high-fantasy style that Sanderson is better known for. Maintaining the pacing and style of an action movie puts Sanderson in limits readers of his work will find unfamiliar and potentially off-putting. There is only so much time or depth it allows him to devote to any character- even his narrator, David. For me, the story works well under those constraints; each member of the cast still feels like they have their own lives, foibles and history. Sanderson even accomplishes the more difficult task of making it feel like this particular story is not only successful told in this way, but couldn’t have been told in any other.

As the story progresses the reader faces many questions- why do the epics seem totally deprived of conscience? What is Steelheart’s weakness and can he be defeated if it is learned? It is worth it to defeat him even then? But the most compelling one is the question that David only realizes he has been asking all along on the final page- even if he can have his revenge, is there something out there that is good and worth living for- possibly something he has been living for all this time? By the end of that page David knows the answer.

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