Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart

Steelheart cover

by Zac Bange

I’ve seen Steelheart bleed. And I will see him bleed again.

David Charleston was eight-years-old when the world as he knew it changed forever. Ordinary people began to develop incredible powers, and with these powers came a desire to rule. These super-powered people are called Epics, and their abilities range from creating illusions, to flying, to blocking out the sun. When a seemingly-invincible Epic named Steelheart begins his conquest of Chicago, David’s father is one of many casualties. For the next ten years, David’s life would be focused on one thing: revenge.

Steelheart is a demonstration of Brandon Sanderson’s ability to create a world that feels authentic despite its supernatural elements. He does this by fully exploring and presenting the ramifications of a world that is inhabited by super-powered beings. The US government is unwilling to pay the costs of fighting the Epics. The passage of the Capitulation Act allows Epics like Steelheart to take over parts of the country without fear of government resistance. These newly-crowned tyrants often transform the cities they conquer, and rarely for the better, creating a dystopian environment for the people unfortunate enough to be living in such areas.

The main characters in Steelheart are members of a resistance group, the Reckoners, which David joins.  While most of the human population docilely accepts the rule of the Epics, the Reckoners fight back against these despotic dictators by targeting, stalking, and assassinating them. Each person is remarkably well-rounded, and they each have a fully-developed personality and voice. David and fellow Reckoner Cody both offer plenty of comic relief to balance out the story’s serious tone and tension; Cody through his ever-changing cultural background and accents, David through his awkwardness around a certain girl and his inability to come up with good metaphors. Prof is the leader of the group and manages to walk a fine line between being passionate about hunting down Epics and remaining aloof. In fact, all of the Reckoners seem to have an air of mystery about them. They’re friendly to David, but he (and the reader) get a sense that there are secrets being kept hidden from him.

The abilities that the Epics have aren’t random or arbitrary, and each one has a specific weakness that is associated with their powers. What David brings to the Reckoners is ten years of research on Epics, including aliases, areas of activity, weaknesses, categorization, and even a hierarchy. After his father’s death, David focused his life on his research. David’s work is so precise, he distinguishes between illusionists who manipulate photons to create images and illusionists who manipulate the mind to create hallucinations. This type of exacting research can only exist in a world where the supernatural elements follow a set of rules.

When the Reckoners decide to kill Steelheart, Megan, a new Reckoner and David’s romantic interest, voices her concern that Newcago (as Chicago is now known) may be better off with Steelheart in power. Though he is cruel and rules through fear, Newcago has electricity, at least, and a police group that enforces Steelheart’s specific brand of peace. Even if killing Steelheart is the right thing to do, would it change the lives of the people in Newcago for better or worse?

For two of the characters, David and Prof, the answer to the question is almost irrelevant. Both are driven by personal reasons to end Steelheart’s life. For David, it means avenging his father, who died while naively trying to help Steelheart. The cause of Prof’s hatred of Steelheart is not revealed, but his anger is a match for David’s, and at some points even exceeds it. When David begins to doubt the path the Reckoners have taken, it is Prof who brings him back on board.

“Abandon the guilt,” Prof said. “Abandon the denial. Steelheart did this . . . He’s our goal. That has to be your focus. We don’t have time for grief; we only have time for vengeance.”

While retribution is a key motivator, Sanderson makes it clear that there are costs to focusing on revenge. Joining the Reckoners is a blessing for David in many ways; besides offering him his best shot at killing Steelheart, they give him human connections. David’s fixation on the Epics had left no room for such pleasantries in the past. The people around David recognize that the ten years he’s spent steeped in anger and plots have taken a toll on him.

Abraham walked over to me and knelt on one knee. “Live, David,” he said softly. “Live your life.”
“I’m doing that,” I grumbled.
“No, you are letting Steelheart live your life for you. He controls it, each step of the way. Live your own life.”

Despite all of the great things that Steelheart has going for it, there is one thing that bothered me while I was reading. While Brandon Sanderson has created a fully-realized world, it’s a world that feels vacant. The novel is so focused on freedom fighters and super-powered beings that the reader rarely gets to see a normal citizen of Newcago. I would have enjoyed a “slice of life” moment, or some indicator of how the rest of the city is coping in this dystopian world.

The murder of David’s father, one of the few people who believe the Epics can be a force for good, at the beginning of Steelheart sets the tone for the rest of the novel. With his death, we see the death of hope and optimism. As the Reckoners take out Epics, they struggle to inspire those old feelings in a population that has grown complacent and cowardly. In a world that has been literally transformed by inhuman forces, the Reckoners are a reminder that every person has the power to change the world they live in.

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