Considering Steelheart: Is This Brandon Sanderson’s “Blockbuster” Year?

I’ve lost track of all the people Brandon Sanderson has killed in the past year.

This isn’t usually something a reader notices about an author’s output, but 2013 has turned into an interesting year for Sanderson. Today’s release of Steelheart, the superpower-centered young adult novel out from Delacorte Press, is the third novel we’ve seen from the author this year, and the fourth in the last 12 months.

It’s exceptional to see such a solid string of releases from an author in so short a time, but for me that frequency in and of itself has inadvertently formed a pattern that has begun informing my view of his individual works (while remaining nonetheless outside of them.) For example, Steelheart by itself is a young adult dystopia showcasing Sanderson’s exploration of superheroes, villains, and superpower sets. But when seen in the context of Sanderson’s other works this year, the relentless and inventive action of Steelheart leads me to think that we as readers are experiencing Brandon’s Blockbuster Year.

By which I mean that the majority of the novels Sanderson has put out in the past 12 months—The Alloy of Law, A Memory of Light, The Rithmatist, and Steelheart—carry a lot of the same structure and tropes that one would expect from a summer blockbuster film: heavy amounts of action, spectacle, and enormous and possibly world-shaking stakes.

For me, it was the amount of action included (and in one case not included) in each of these titles that prompted me to link these books together. As I mentioned, Steelheart is relentless and it’s rare for a chapter in that novel to go by without a plan enacted, a mission carried out, or an enemy confronted. The story itself is thinner than you would expect, so in a lot of ways this pace is necessary. If the novel stops moving, so do you, so Sanderson uses his considerable skill at crafting action sequences to ensure that you’re always flipping to the next page.

Steelheart being essentially 90% ruckus creates a new problem for the author, though, which is that in order for the novel to be consistently engaging all of these action sequences must bring something new and exciting to the story. Creating that kind of spectacle over and over and making sure that each one of them generates tension is not an easy task, even for an experienced author.

Sanderson largely succeeds at this particular aspect of Steelheart, and in doing so he brings to mind the insane, wall-to-wall, world-shattering war in A Memory of Light earlier this year. I don’t know about other Wheel of Time fans, but in the lead-up to the final volume I was personally very much hoping for an epic, reality-rending fight between everyone and everything in Robert Jordan’s series. I wanted unique and mind-boggling uses of the One Power, ra’kens and/or to’rakens with cannons on their back, cuendillar tanks (once JordanCon put that idea in my head it never left), swarms of wolves mowing down Myrddraal, trees coming to life and punching Trollocs…I wanted everything i.e. The Last Battle had to damn well feel like The Last Battle.

Although even with that desire, I only expected the actual fighting to take up, maybe, the last 300 pages of the book. 300 pages is the average size of a not-fantasy novel, so surely that would be enough? What I didn’t expect from A Memory of Light was to essentially be off and running after about 6 chapters… and then to see the fighting escalate even further on a myriad of fronts… and then to see all of those various escalating fronts merge into a large single front… and then to have the Sharans show up….

The entirety of A Memory of Light is war, and one of the prevailing thoughts I had after finishing the book (aside from: THAT WAS TEH AWES0M-O) was what a marathon it must have been to have to write fight scene after fight scene—regardless of whether it was army versus army, swordsman versus swordsman, channeler versus cannonade, or rock versus scissors—even if Sanderson really didn’t want to anymore.

This kinetic style of writing and predilection towards action scenes has always appeared throughout the author’s works, although it is more prevalent in the Stormlight Archive series and the ongoing saga of Mistborn. A Memory of Light seems to have really opened the floodgates, though, and Sanderson’s works in the past year have been replete with an intense pace. (The Rithmatist is notable for eschewing this, but still ends with the impression that Bigger World-Shattering Things Are In Motion.) This is when I came to notice the other similarities to blockbuster films, and how Sanderson’s latest works tended to carry some element of them, even if it wasn’t cover-to-cover action. 

The parallels between blockbuster movies and Sanderson’s writing style are intriguing. Is this an intentional parallel on his part? Unintentional? Either way, what does this mean?

Words of Radiance is just around the corner, with new installments coming from the Steelheart and Mistborn series. Should we expect all of the author’s subsequent novels to follow this blockbuster pattern? Would that approach begin to stifle the stories he tells, or the genres he plays within?

Or will Sanderson continue to branch out as he continues to develop these worlds? We’re about to take another step into the Stormlight Archive, and although The Way of Kings tracked an ongoing war, it also spent a great deal of care developing the character of Kaladin, tracking him from boy to doctor to warrior to prisoner. Is it Shallan’s turn next? (Note to self: Ask Carl.) Will this become the next hallmark of Sanderson’s stories as his series develop? Deep characterization synthesized with epic action sequences?


Chris Lough is the production manager of Tor.com and is known for his intense eating sequences.

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