I first read Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson (the first book in the Reckoners trilogy) in November 2017, so it’s about time I wrote a review for it!
Steelheart is set in a near-future Chicago — now called Newcago — in which the landscape, politics, and life in general differ in substantial ways from ours. Here, people with superpowers rule, but this is not like if we were to elect Steve Rogers as President. No, this is a dictatorship rather than a just, benevolent system. These super-powered people, called Epics, have a steel grip on the world, quite literally in Newcago’s case. Steelheart is the invincible ruler of this city, and in David’s opinion, he must be stopped. The only way David knows to fight this Epic, though, is to seek out the mysterious rebel group called the Reckoners. And he isn’t even sure they exist…
To start with, the characters in this book are pretty good. The cast is fairly diverse in their backgrounds and personalities and abilities. The protagonist/narrator David is an adequate main character, but beyond his groan-inducing “metaphors,” he is a rather generic teenage boy. Nothing much distinguishes him from plenty of other young narrators. More than anything, he seems to be a stand-in for Sanderson’s teenage self. The other characters, such as Prof and Megan, are entertaining though. I quite liked those two especially, and learning about their abilities and skill sets was fun.
As for world-building, I already knew Sanderson was a master, and this is no exception. He establishes plenty of details throughout this book, from the history of the Epics (though their origins are shadowy still) to the finer points of life in Newcago’s depths. This book might have less detail in it than the first book of Mistborn, but I’ll chalk that up to the novels’ respective lengths. The world of the Epics feels fully realized and lived-in. And the fast-paced adventure Sanderson leads us on through this world is exciting and intriguing. The plot twists and questions keep you reading, and I had quite a fun time immersing myself in this story.
This is also a new take on superheroes, different than most others I have seen. Instead of making Epics admirable, Sanderson shows them to be tainted by the power they have been given. Now, I know plenty of superhero stories touch on this motif (just look at General Ludendorff in Wonder Woman, Doctor Octopus in Spiderman 2, or Hal in Megamind), but none have to the extent and depth Steelheart does. The saying that absolute power corrupts absolutely has never been more evident in YA fiction than here, as the theme of superheroes being… well, heroes, is turned on its head. Certainly, dictators are nothing new in real life or in fiction, but having these dictators take the form of something closer to Mr. Incredible or Iron Man give us something new to think about. Superpowers, realistically, would not be a blessing; I believe the world would be something closer to the world of Steelheart than that of the Avengers. Sanderson seems to agree with me. After all, in this novel, we are not allowed the escapist comfort zone other superhero films and books present — instead, we are forced to see these figures as enemies rather than saviors. I find that a fascinating, fresh take on a genre that has so oversaturated the market of late.
In the end, Steelheart is an excellent first book that promises to kick off another strong trilogy from Sanderson. The world is set up well. The characters are introduced and promptly revealed to have unexpected sides to their personalities that have us aching to know more. And best of all, the themes explored here make this a novel to read and discuss, then perhaps read again.
Overall rating: 8.5/10