Considering that I only reviewed Brandon Sanderson’s first Mistborn novel “Final Empire” just last month, it might look as though I went off specifically looking for someone else of his to read as a quick follow-up. That’s not actually the case: while the fact that I’d liked Mistborn certainly meant that I was open to further outings in Sanderson’s literary world, it was purely the basic concept that drew me to “Steelheart”, the first in a different trilogy of novels under the umbrella title Reckoners; oh, and the fact that the Kindle book was on offer at Amazon.co.uk as part of a promotion supporting the launch of the second book in the trilogy. But at the same time, I’ll concede that the fact I’d already enjoyed one of Sanderson’s novels made me much more amenable to acting on my impulse to buy a second.
The concept that caught my eye was the idea of a world in which comic book superpowers became a reality – but with a horrible twist. Only people who are (or who become) evil manifest powers, and with no one able to stand against them they quickly become tyrants and capricious killers, no more interested in or respectful of ordinary human lives as they would be an ants nest. “Steelheart” is set ten years into the emergence of these so-called ‘Epics’ which in the interim has caused the complete collapse of human society which is now utterly subordinate to those with superpowers. With no superheroes on the horizon to balance the equation, hope has all but gone out of the world. It’s a set-up that I loved the moment I read it and found completely irresistible.
Sanderson is careful not to evoke any well-known existing comic book franchises with his characters, save for some generic energy bolt blasting. There are Epics that can cast illusions and some who can see the future, others that can control the darkness, cause earthquakes, or have healing abilities that make them functionally invulnerable. One has the quirky ability to provide unlimited ammunition for any firearm that he happens to be using. But the most infamous of them all calls himself Steelheart, a man who can convert anything he touches to solid steel and who has installed himself as the much-feared ruler of a totally steel-transformed Chicago. As far as anyone knows, he has no vulnerabilities and can’t be harmed; and yet as a young child, David Charleston saw Steelheart bleed – right before the Epic promptly killed David’s well-meaning father for scratching him. An older David is determined to make Steelheart bleed again (and die) and to that effect seeks out the resistance group known as the Reckoners.
“Steelheart” shares a fair amount of its overall plot construction with “Final Empire” in that it follows this group’s elaborate plan to take down the evil overlord, but this book has a distinctly different tone being more of a YA (Young Adult) book featuring lots of battle scenes, foot and road chases, and extended gun fights all told from the point of view of its 18-year-old male protagonist David who is not himself an Epic but who knows an awful lot about those who are through years of obsessive study. As you’d expect from a YA book this is told at a furious and gripping pace, one that positively demands that you read one more chapter and then just one more again before you turn in for the night. It’s an irresistible read in other words, one that took me no time at all to race through from cover-to-cover with great enjoyment. The fact that it’s set on a ‘real but altered’ post-apocalyptic Earth just makes it even more compelling to me than a story set in a flat-out fantasy world.
While YA in tone, Sanderson doesn’t skimp on the well-written prose, and also employs all his ready skills of world building previously on display in his ‘adult’ fantasy tomes. If anything, the YA component only boosts his handling of the likeable group of characters, from David through to the team of Reckoners he ends up working with: firearms specialist Abraham, researcher Tia, comedy relief Cody, point ‘man’ Megan and team leader Prof. You care for them all, and when bad things inevitably happen to them then it really has an impact as a result. There’s some gore as well as violence making this one for the older YA audience along the lines of The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner – and yes, it would make a rather good motion picture or mini series if the budget ever allowed for the necessary visual FX.
Along with everything else, Sanderson also shows once again that he’s capable of writing the first episode of a projected fantasy series which stands up on its own merit as an enjoyable solo story, while still putting in place all manner of plot threads to build on in subsequent instalments. Everything that you expected to be addressed and dealt with in the story – what’s Steelheart’s secret? for example – is delivered by the final page which is in itself an entirely satisfying climax to the story; but along the way, you also get peeks into the backstories of the other characters that leave you wanting to know more. The ending is a complete resolution to the set-up at the beginning of the book and itself a world-changing development, but at the same time it leaves you hanging on a thread asking “what now?” Other questions aren’t touched at all but nonetheless persist in tantalising, such as the overarching mystery of where exactly all these superpowers came from in the first place: theories are discussed between the characters but no one has an answer at this stage, Except Sanderson himself, that is.
It’s a terrific book, every bit as good as I hoped for when I read the original book jacket blurb outlining the fascinating premise. I’m already restraining myself from galloping straight on to the second, newly-released book in the series because I like to savour these things rather than binge on them as fast as possible. But make no mistake, I’ll be picking up “Firelight” before too long because this is too good to miss, and I really really want to know more about this world and its characters.
Steelheart is available from bookshops in paperback and ebook versions. The second book in the Reckoners series, Firefight, has just been published in hardback and in ebook. There’s also a very short story called Mitosis (essentially, a single battle scene between the two volumes. The third book, Calamity, is due to be published in March 2017.