Sunday, 12 January 2014

Steelheart; by Brandon Sanderson

Ten years ago, Calamity came. It was a burst in the sky that gave ordinary men and women extraordinary powers. The awed public started calling them Epics. But Epics are no friend of man. With incredible gifts came the desire to rule. And to rule man you must crush his will. Nobody fights the Epics...nobody but the Reckoners. A shadowy group of ordinary humans, they spend their lives studying Epics, finding their weaknesses, and then assassinating them. And David wants in. He wants Steelheart - the Epic who is said to be invincible. The Epic who killed David's father. For years, like the Reckoners, David's been studying, and planning - and he has something they need. Not an object, but an experience.

He's seen Steelheart bleed.

And he wants revenge.

One of my favourite authors tackling the superhero genre? I was sold from the start, I won’t lie. Sanderson isn’t quite a big name on the same scale as, say, George R.R. Martin, or Neil Gaiman, but he is both extremely prolific and very talented (thirteen full novels and several short stories since his debut, Elantris, was published in 2005), and the superhero genre is the perfect fit for his style. He is well known amongst connoisseurs of fantasy literature for his ‘laws’, all of which focus on the use of magic in fantasy – broadly speaking, magic must have limitations, there must be rules, it must affect the world around it. In many ways, they are fine ideas. It’s a common problem within the genre to find that conflict is resolved by brute force or deus ex machina rather than intelligent plotting, and I am all for avoiding that wherever possible. On the other hand though, Sanderson’s magic rarely feels magical to me. Everything is so rigorously explained that there is little room for wonder, however awesome the scenes he crafts might be, and his magical characters have always felt more like people with super powers rather than wizards. In theory then, this tendency would pay dividends with an actual superhero novel.

However, his previous YA series, ‘Alcatraz vs the Evil Librarians’, was distinctly disappointing (see here for details), so I went in cautiously. Happily, ‘Steelheart’ is a far better book than any of the four ‘Alcatraz…’ instalments.

For a start, despite being set in a dystopian future where you can literally be killed for looking at someone and heroism and nobility seem to have been almost genetically eradicated, it’s fun. This is actually a quality of all of Sanderson’s work, but whereas the ‘Alcatraz’ series took it to rather wacky extremes, the fun here is smoother, more fitting. Side character Cody’s stories are always entertaining, and the main character David has a line in metaphors that would make an English teacher scream and the Eleventh Doctor applaud. More importantly, the plot is an entertaining, caper-esque thrill ride, and Sanderson has always had a nice touch with an action scene; several moments in ‘Steelheart’ had me grinning with glee at the tightly controlled spectacle on the page.

In addition, it’s set in an intriguing universe. The Epics largely go beyond the normal superpowers familiar from comicbooks, although Steelheart is an obvious Superman knock-off, with a few crucial differences even before taking into account his psychosis. There are a few intriguing twists along the way (and a few predictable ones, but you can’t have everything), and some good plot-lines to follow up for the rest of the series. As a bonus, it can be fun trying to spot all the comic related shout outs over the course of the story.

However, it isn’t all good. Aside from the aforementioned metaphor mangling, David’s only other character trait of note is being obsessed with revenge, and as a result he can come across as being rather flat. To be fair, learning that there is more to life than revenge is the thrust of his arc over the course of the book, so presumably this is a deliberate choice that will be smoothed out over subsequent instalments rather than a fault of the writing, but thus far he isn’t the most engaging character. The same can be said for Steelheart himself, who despite being the entire point of the book and more or less a god within the confines of the setting is actually a very underwhelming, generic supervillain. The secondary villains are far more interesting though, so it’s not a complete loss on that score.

More importantly, as much fun as the book is, it was also fun when Sanderson wrote more or less the same story in ‘The Final Empire’, the first instalment of his bestselling Mistborn series. It was also somewhat better. The plot was generic both times (orphan joins up with gang of misfits to overthrow an omnipotent tyrant), but ‘Steelheart’ is not as fleshed out as the earlier book.

All in all then, a highly entertaining read, and a lot of promise to come, but a must read? That will probably depend on how big a fan of Sanderson and superheroes you are.

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