Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Travis' Book Review: Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

Ten years ago, Calamity happened.  A burst of red light suddenly appeared in the sky, and a small percentage of people around the world developed amazing powers and abilities. The ones who gained power are called Epics, and many are so strong they can change entire landscapes and world infrastructures with little more than a thought. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, however, and the strongest Epics quickly began to fight over and claim territories, recruiting weaker Epics, destroying governments, and enslaving all of those without power.

Eighteen-year-old David lost everything in Calamity. Caught in the middle of an Epic’s rampage, he learned quickly that the world has no superheroes. His father believed the heroes would come, though; that they would appear and save them from the tyranny of the Epics. For that belief, David’s father paid with his life. Trying to protect his son, trying to defend an Epic he mistook for a hero, David watched as his father was brutally murdered by Steelheart, one of the most powerful Epics in the world - the same Epic his father was trying to protect. Before he was killed, though, David’s father did something that no one had done before or has done since – he made Steelheart bleed. Enraged, Steelheart went on a rampage that ended with the Epic turning the entire landscape of Chicago into steel before declaring himself the city’s leader. Ten years later, David is the only surviving witness to the events of the day that led to Steelheart being wounded. Armed with that memory, David seeks to join the Reckoners, a resistance movement dedicated to killing Epics, with one goal in mind – kill Steelheart.

Steelheart is a novel that simply should not work, and if anyone other than Brandon Sanderson wrote it, it probably wouldn’t. The novel is basically a smorgasbord of YA and comic book clichés. It is set in a dystopian post-apocalyptic near-future, has an average and clumsy (especially with words) teenage protagonist, clean curse-words (Sparks!) and features a mysterious insta-love inspiring character with hidden abilities that continuously makes the protagonist lose focus. The super-powered characters and freedom fighters in the novel are all Sanderson’s take on comic and pop cultural icons. Steelheart is literally, the “Man of Steel,” while other epics have powerful psychic abilities like Professor X, foresight and agility like Spiderman, and one even has the power to never run out of bullets, which is most likely a reference to 80s action movies starring guys like Schwarzenegger. The individual aspects of the novel are all far from being original ideas, and any comic book fan will find a lot familiarity in the Epics’ powers. Some readers may even recognize that the Reckoners are basically The A-Team, including driving a van! While some of these references may seem like a parody, Sanderson’s fans, who recognize his fantasy literature prowess and general awesomeness, will probably read the novel as being satirical of both genres. I mean, come on, a guy famous for being a ghost-writer of one of the largest epic fantasy series calls his villains the Epics!

In spite of the lack of the originality in its individual elements, though, Sanderson must have channeled the spirit of the guy that first combined cookie dough and vanilla ice cream because he turns two simple, familiar, and well-known elements into something far more satisfying than its parts. From start to finish, Steelheart is an action-filled adventure, full of twists and turns and plenty of cliffhangers. Just the pacing of the novel shows that Sanderson is a master of his craft, and he fully engages the reader with his world-building and direction.  Some of the elements of the novel seem to come out of nowhere simply for the sake of pushing the plot, though, like the fact that every Epic has a secret weakness, whether it makes sense or not. One Epic’s power is nullified by being attracted to a woman, for example, and others could be a word, a symbol, a specific date, or any random number of possibilities. Even this element, though, helps the reader join the ride as the main characters use David’s experience to find out what can kill Steelheart. Every element, however, including the technology used by the Reckoners, the characters’ pasts and personalities, and David’s memory are all pieces of one big puzzle that culminate into an exciting climax and conclusion. Steelheart keeps the reader excited, keeps the reader guessing, and more importantly, keeps the reader reading. It is a wonderful book that I would definitely recommend to older teens looking for an exciting read, especially guys since the narrator is an 18-year-old guy, and comic book fans. Be warned that the novel is full of violence, with dozens of deaths, including an infant, just in the opening pages. So, the novel is probably not appropriate for younger or more conservative readers.

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