Sep 6 2013 9:00am

Power Corrupts: Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

Brandon Sanderson Steelheart US cover

“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 On occasion he’s been seen to tweet, twoo.

David W
1. DavidW
The sequel is already at 15% on Brandon Sanderson's website. I can't wait to get into this series.
Walker White
2. Walker
One of the primary complaints I have heard about this novel is that Brandon is trying a little too hard to shoehorn it in the "young adult" categorization (as his traditional fantasy novels deal with more mature characters). And I get some of this vibe from the first five chapters online; David's social awkwardness feels almost artificial. I wonder if this is not the cause of your problems with the first act.
3. Kadere
Every time I hear about this novel or read the description I think I'm reading about Mistborn again. Guys with super powers are currpoted by their power and a group of regular people have to overthrow them using special whatever. I mean come on. He's basically ripping himself off at this point. Add in his lack of being able to write interesting characters in any book he's ever written... I mean Jesus. I'm afraid I'm about to give up with Sanderson. His magic systems are practically all the same as well. If you ingest this material you have this much power. Now maybe the epics are different, but I wouldn't be too f-ing surprised if their power comes from the same thing. Well, now he's a Hugo winning author, so clearly it's popular. Oh well.
Matt Spencer
4. Iarvin
@3, did you read the same Mistborn as I did? All the primary characters in Mistborn had super powers, usually as full mistborn or feruchemists, and were far from 'regular people' in that world. Most of the secondary characters had them as well, if not as strongly.

To me Sanderson's biggest strength is he creates fascinating plots, and I would agree with you that his area of least strength is the depth of his characters.They get into interesting situations, but for whatever reason the characters themselves haven't been especially engaging to me.
Kevin Baijens
5. ImRhoven
@3 Erhm, the Mistborn series is all about people with powers. Out of the entire group of heroes from the first book there's exactly 1 guy without any powers. There's also nothing corrupting about any of the magic systems in Mistborn.

There is also only 1 of his magic systems that has you ingest anything to use the abilities: Allomancy. There's no swallowing stuff in the other 2 Mistborn magic systems. Elantris and the Emperor's Soul are based on symbols. Warbringer is colours and the Stormlight Archive has a whole host of different types of magic. None involve ingesting stuff as far as I'm aware.

Critique is fine. But at least have it based on reality.
Birgit F
6. birgit
Brandon has plans for another Mistborn trilogy where ordinary people fight a bad Mistborn, but those books don't exist yet.
Walker White
7. Walker

There is also only 1 of his magic systems that has you ingest anything to use the abilities: Allomancy.

You inhale breath in Warbreaker and stormlight in WoK. They are similar.

But that is just resource management; it is like drawing on the one source or mana or whatever. It that has nothing to do with the magic systems per se. The magic system determines what you can do with that resource. And those systems are all radically different.
8. Char
In the post, you said, "There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the Epics’ strengths and weaknesses; nor does the author attempt to address what caused Calamity."

I have not read this book, but a similar lack of explanation existed in MISTBORN, book 1. Why was the all-powerful and nearly immortal Lord Ruler devoid of any sense of humanity, compassion, and responsibility — especially to the Skaa? I felt Sanderson left that hanging. No rhyme or reason for it. Yes, we found out who he used to be, but that does not explain WHY he became so foul.

By the end of Steelheart, you felt more satisfied with the "rhyme and reason" you mentioned above?
9. Anand Alex
I love all of Brandon Sanderson's books,in fact; he is my favourite author. I even liked his latest book, Steelheart, but I have some strong reservations about it.My biggest objection to it is that it bears more than a passing resemblance to the anime Darker Than Black. In both of these, the "epics"(not called that in the anime) are bestowed power by a comet/meteorite, there is a false sky, the "epics" are corrupted by the power they wield. The biggest similarity is in the weakness of the "epics". In the book, the epics have these unique if illogical weaknesses. In the anime, they have these "obeisances" that they must perform after each usage of their power which are equally unique n illogical. I have already sent an email to ur website, Mr Sanderson (if ur reading this), regarding my concerns. I'd like an answer. I wouldn't have mentioned this except no one seems to have noticed.
Chaddaï Fouché
10. Jedai
What exactly are your "concerns" ?
Sanderson may well have seen and been inspired by Darker Than Black but Steelheart is hardly plagiarism : there are many more difference between the two than similarities (apart from the genre). The epics and the contractors are very different :
- the epics dominate and crushed the government and normal society, the contractors are tools of government or other organizations and are hidden from the people that lives much as they do now,
- the epics are immoral monsters that take human lusts to their limits, the contractors are amoral and don't care much for normal human needs
- the epics have specific weakness (and that's not a novel idea, in most comics, supers have their own weakness sometimes particularly silly ones) while contractors have obeisances (which is clearly fantastical OCD) which are very different and may or may not represent a weakness.
- there is no "false" sky in Steelheart, only a perpetual night on the specific city of Newcago imposed by Nightwielder (you'll find this idea in several other books); in DTB the sky on the whole earth has been replaced by a false sky that reflect contractors fates.
- The idea of powers granted by an astral phenomenon is hardly original to DTB and is in fact older than dirt...

We also follow the adventure of a "normal" in Steelheart whereas DTB main hero is a contractor (...).

So why would you "object" to Steelheart ? Do you want your books to be entirely original, with no idea to track to any other inspiration or that present a slight resemblance to another work ? Because if that's the case, you better not read too much since you'll soon realize that with enough literary background, no modern work will ever fulfill these conditions...
11. daventor
Just finished it. Really enjoyed it, though I did have some issues with it- mainly that a lot of the humor just seemed cheesy and fell flat with me (in particular, the running gag of David trying to come up with metaphors).

Still, overall I really enjoyed it and am excited to see where the rest of the series goes.

I find it odd for their to be complaints about Sanderson not explaining everything clearly about the Epics' origins and the powers/weaknesses seeming arbitrary. This is the first book in the trilogy. I have no doubts that Sanderson already has that stuff figured out and it will be revealed as the trilogy goes on- with Mistborn we didn't really know the true nature of Ruin/Preservation and all that jazz till book 3. This is how Sanderson writes. Big mysteries that are resolved at the climax of each book.

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