Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart is a young adult novel, it has a post-apocalyptic setting, and it’s about superheroes (super villains, actually). It’s like Sanderson collected the last five years of blockbuster movies and novels and condensed them into one work that could be adapted into a newer, even bigger blockbuster movie. I also think there’s video game potential.
Steelheart is not adapted from a specific comic series, though Sanderson does appear to have been inspired by some of the genre’s most popular titles. Here, a bizarro man of steel named Steelheart takes over Chicago, renames it “Newcago,” and begins a cruel reign of dominance. Steelheart is an Epic — he has superpowers like super strength and the ability to generate energy blasts from his extremities — and he appears to be invincible. However, one person, David, has seen Steelheart bleed. Unfortunately, Steelheart murdered David’s father immediately afterward.
David is not an Epic. He’s just an eighteen-year-old armed with a rifle, a need for vengeance, and exhaustive notes on how to defeat Steelheart and his Epic minions. When the novel begins, David thinks that he has found a way to join the Reckoners, a group of Bruce Wayne types who fight with gadgets, ingenuity, and improvisation rather than Epic powers. After some initial infodumps in which David compares his taxonomy of Epics against the Reckoners’ taxonomy, David is accepted. He focuses on defeating Steelheart, though he is frustrated that Megan, the most attractive Reckoner, isn’t attracted to him.
The strength of Steelheart, as any Brandon Sanderson fan might guess, is its plot. Sanderson keeps moving his Reckoners — broken into short, crisp chapters — towards a series of boss battles. There are twists and turns in each battle that keep them from becoming very repetitive. Sanderson’s pace is fast enough that many readers will be too busy to question his red herrings.
And like many popular young adult novels, such as Shusterman’s Unwind or Westerfeld’s Uglies, Steelheart has a provocative premise to lure readers. Here, America’s “best and brightest” are actually power mad, corrupt, and morally bankrupt. The Epics run the country into the ground as they seek to expand their control. A small group from the 99-percent decides that the time for violent resistance has arrived, and they are determined to overthrow Steelheart so that the people will have the freedom to take control of their own lives again.
Unfortunately for the people, the most interesting infodumps are devoted to the Epics, their superpowers, and their weaknesses. The Reckoners are characterized mostly through banter about weapons, and I found that I could distinguish one from another by how they serve David’s needs rather than by their personalities. David is attracted to Megan, not Tia, and he learns from the Prof, not Megan. Cody and Abraham, meanwhile, both offer light-hearted humor and good-natured advice, so they serve a very similar role. Steelheart and his minions, meanwhile, are flatly characterized as cruel, remorseless dictators who deserve to be killed.
David is interesting, but not, perhaps, in a way that Sanderson has intended. David is a nerd, he doesn’t have much of a sense of humor, and he’s not very smooth around Megan. In these ways, he recalls a conventional hero like Luke Skywalker. (There may be something to this comparison since David does come up with a plan to pick up a power converter at one point.) Luke Skywalker is not very interesting. Instead, he is a dependable, responsible, well-intentioned guy around whom morally questionable characters can gather. David, on the other hand, is actually a deeply disturbed teenager who is armed to the teeth and prepared to kill.
As much as I admired David’s improvisation and his quirky similes, I couldn’t help noticing that I was reading about a teenage role model who devotes all of his free time to plotting murders. David often pontificates on the benefits of killing with rifles rather than handguns, and he later discovers an enthusiasm for remote-detonation explosives. Worse, David shows no remorse for his victims. Here’s our steel hearted hero after one murder: “I don’t care — and have never cared — which hand actually took his life. I made it happen. I’ve got his skull to prove it.” Perhaps David will come to tragically realize in following novels that the corrupting power the Epics wield is similar to his own use of explosives and rifles. I also found that Steelheart’s lack of character — he is cast as a bully and a murderer — made him a problematic antagonist for young David. As I finished Steelheart, I found myself surprised that a young adult publisher picked up a story that romanticizes a character like David in today’s climate of public shootings.
The publishers must have been convinced by Steelheart’s other strengths, which are likely to please many readers. Although Steelheart lacks a love triangle — so far — it offers a quick read, a trilogy publication from one of SFF’s most dependable authors, and a lot of action. Steelheart may be a page-turner, but its flat characterization did not convince me that I must continue reading this series. Further, Sanderson’s young adult hero lacks the deep sense of responsibility we see in Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching, the ability to question one’s motivations that we see in John Green’s heroes, or even the righteous heroism and leadership of Harry Potter. For now, I’d hand books by any one of those authors to young adult readers before I’d recommend Steelheart.