Power Corrupts: Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

“It’s always dark in Newcago,” declares David Charleston, a decade on from the death of his fearless father at the hands of Steelheart. The darkness shrouding the city has been gathering since that fateful day, as if to help keep some deep secret… but it’s always darkest before the dawn, isn’t that what they say?

As well they may. But the dawn of what? Why hope, of course.

For the moment, though, there’s none. Humanity has been almost completely defeated, and the night’s spiteful cycle is constant reminder of our fall from prominence.

The only thing you can see up there is Calamity, which looks kind of like a bright red star or comet. Calamity began to shine one year before men started turning into Epics. Nobody knows why or how it still shines through the darkness. Of course, nobody knows why the Epics started appearing, or what their connection is to Calamity either.

Forgive me for trotting out another expression in such quick succession, but knowledge is power, is it not? Would that it were so simple! After all, our protagonist, poor dear David, has a whole lot of knowledge—he’s spent his entire adult life assembling it—but precious little power.

Alone, he’s as helpless against the Epics as he was when one murdered his father in front of him—his father, who dared to dream of a hero. Alone, he might be better informed than most about the whys and wherefores of Steelheart’s army, however he’s no match for even the weakest of these superbeings. Alone, David’s store of knowledge is unto nothing… which is why it’s his heart’s desire to join the Reckoners, a cell of rebels who have dedicated themselves to the death of the Epics. So when he figures out that they’re in the city, he puts his life on the line to manufacture a meeting.

It isn’t giving the game away to tell you that in time, the team takes him in. According to David’s new boss, Prof, it seems his study of Steelheart might indeed be the key to defeating the evil overlord. Though many have tried and failed in the past, only he has seen Steelheart bleed, and this could be the piece that unlocks the ultimate puzzle.

But if the Reckoners are going to stand a chance of putting our protagonist’s plan into action, they’ll have to work out what Steelheart’s unique weakness is. Every Epic has one.

The problem was, an Epic weakness could be just about anything. Tia [the Reckoners’ in-house hacker] mentioned symbols—there were some Epics who, if they saw a specific pattern, lost their powers for a few moments. Others were weakened by thinking certain thoughts, not eating certain foods, or eating the wrong foods. The weaknesses were more varied than the powers themselves were.

So begins Brandon Sanderson’s new novel. Broadly speaking, at least. In actual fact I found Steelheart’s first act rather lacking. The several action scenes it revolves around are absolutely adequate, but the plot punctuating them is predictable, the prose unpolished and the characterisation bland. Add to that—and this disappointed me most of all, given Sanderson’s knack for knocking up neat new milieus—a great many of the specifics of this particular post-apocalypse appeared arbitrary. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the Epics’ strengths and weaknesses; nor does the author attempt to address what caused Calamity.

Lots of people did have theories, and most would be happy to tell you about them. The Epics were the next stage in human evolution, or they were a punishment sent by this god or that, or they were really aliens. or they were the result of a government project. Or it was all fake and they were using technology to pretend they had powers.

Most of the theories fell apart when confronted by facts. Normal people had gained powers and become Epics; they weren’t aliens or anything like that. There were enough direct stories of a family member manifesting abilities. Scientists claimed to be baffled by the genetics of Epics.

Steelheart Brandon Sanderson UK cover

So what is going on? Where did the Epics come from, and what do they want? These are just a few of the fascinating questions Sanderson asks but declines, for the larger part, to answer… which brings me back to my issues with the beginning of this book. Early on, there’s a certain sense that the author is making it all up as he goes along—not a negative in itself, but taken together with everything else, I wasn’t what you’d call keen to read the rest.

But here’s the thing: I’m glad I gave Steelheart a chance to redeem itself. Admittedly, it mightn’t have the best of beginnings, yet Sanderson finds his feet in time to make the remainder of his tale sensational. The aforementioned problems are still problems, but only with one small part of the entire narrative, because when the pace picks up, it rarely relents; the characters, including our protagonist, only really come into their own when in one another’s company; whilst the story gathers such force as it goes that the reader can’t help but be swept up, up and away with it.

It doesn’t hurt that Sanderson is so self-aware. He draws attention to his own dreadful metaphors, going so far as to fashion a neat character beat from these; a decent deal sweetened by the earnest sense of humour he adopts to tell what turns out to be a pretty terrific tale. What Steelheart lacks in polish and initial impact it more than makes up for in terms of energy and affection. In the final summation, it’s actually fantastic fun: a love letter of sorts to the superhero, though these are few and far between… and for good reason, in this instance.

What we have here, it becomes clear, is a very clever realisation of the idea that power corrupts.

Epics had a distinct, even incredible, lack of morals or conscience. That bothered some people, on a philosophical level. Theorists, scholars. They wondered at the sheer inhumanity many Epics manifested. Did the Epics kill because Calamity chose—for whatever reason—only terrible people to gain powers? Or did they kill because such amazing power twisted a person, made them irresponsible?

There were no conclusive answers. I didn’t care; I wasn’t a scholar. Yes, I did research, but so did a sports fan when he followed his team. It didn’t matter to me why the Epics did what they did any more than a baseball fan wondered at the physics of a bat hitting a ball. […] Only one thing mattered—Epics gave no thought for originary human life. A brutal murder was a fitting retribution, in their minds, for the most minor of infractions.

This theme, at least, the author pays off in spades… unlike several other essential elements of Steelheart’s premise.

It’s hard not to see Sanderson’s back-catalogue in terms of major and minor works. In the past, he’s even discussed this description, explaining that novels of the latter category represent “refreshers” from the big epics which are his true love, but can be very demanding mentally. “I like to be very free and loose when I write them,” he adds—and sadly, that practice is apparent in Steelheart. That said, this is much more satisfying than a paltry palate-cleanser.

I can hardly believe I’m saying this, given the failings of Steelheart’s first act—not to mention its overall lack of clarity as regards certain crucial concepts—but I can’t wait to see what Brandon Sanderson does with the rest of the Reckoners trilogy this short, sweet book about superpowers begins.

Steelheart is available September 24th from Delacorte Press


Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. On occasion he’s been seen to tweet, twoo.

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