Despite being aware of Brandon Sanderson’s acclaim within Sci-Fi/Fantasy circles, I hadn’t read any of his books up until yesterday. In fact, I didn’t buy Steelheart because of the reputation of the author, but because the concept of the story piqued my interest when I read about it in an article I saw on Twitter. To give you a clue as to what I thought of this book, consider that I started it yesterday afternoon and am now beginning to write this review less than 24 hours later, having just finished it. And at 384 pages long, Steelheart is hardly the shortest book in the world.
The concept is reasonably simple. Steelheart takes place in a future version of our world, though only about 10-15 years from now. The dozen or so years before the story were marked by one thing: Calamity. A mysterious red light in the sky, calamity appeared for no apparent reason and suddenly normal people gained extraordinary powers. Doesn’t sound special, does it? Sounds similar to the sudden mass mutation that caused Marvel’s X-Men to appear, right? Wrong. Here’s the twist to the traditional comic book tale: these super-humans, known as Epics are, as it says on the blurb ‘no friend of man’. In this world, none of the super-humans ever had an Uncle Ben to tell them that ‘With great power comes great responsibility’. They are monsters.
That’s the concept that intrigued me before I even picked the book and, let me tell you, the rest of the book doesn’t disappoint. Told from the perspective of David, an eighteen-year-old boy desperate for revenge on the Epic that killed his father, Sanderson expertly manoeuvres readers around the steel-encased streets of Newcago, an almost dystopian vision of a future Chicago. The setting is chilling. It is always dark. Only the rich live and work above ground. Everyone else tries to make ends meet in the ‘understreets’ where they are safer from an Epic who could kill them with a stray thought.
This book can probably be called a bridge between teen fiction and adult fiction. There is enough humour and emotional drama for the book to hold the attention of teenagers, and yet the concept and writing is sophisticated enough that it will not alienate older readers. Alongside the comic-book violence lie moral complications and ideological confusion as the characters try to work out what’s right and wrong in a world turned instantaneously upon its head. The book questions the comic-book assumption that, in a super-human production scenario, there will always be someone determined to use that power for good. Perhaps Brandon Sanderson has taken a look at real world leaders and wondered if anyone would use absolute power for good. As the book comments, ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’.
I don’t know how much Sanderson intended to push the moral and ideological questions that go hand in hand with his somewhat pessimistic portrayal of the human weakness for power, but the questions are there nonetheless. Still, he is never wholly pessimistic. Some people, like David, are determined to fight for liberty, even if that fight is often overshadowed by personal vendettas. There is something in humanity worth saving, the book seems to argue. You can’t just give everything over to those with power. As with several other books aimed, at least partially, at the teen market, there is a sense that we have the means to fight for a better world. The Hunger Games is another example of this. There is the idea that ordinary people can make a difference. We’re not talking about super-soldiers and rich playboy types, we’re talking about the likes of a former teacher, a hopeful optimist and a physically average boy (not to mention a Southern American who insists on making absurd Scottish references).
As with all the best examples of the superhero genre, this book is, first and foremost, fun to read. Without fun, the superhero genre would be nothing. But Sanderson doesn’t leave it at that. He carves out his own story of super-humans and strange events, but he puts ordinary people at the heart of it. This is a story rich in humour and lovable characters, as well as being a story that poses serious questions if we’re willing to address them.
Put simply, this is one of the best books I’ve read in recent months.