Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Steelheart



Rating: 3.5 stars
Length: A bit longer than average but uses space well (381 pages in trade paperback)
Publication: September 2013 from Delacorte books
Premise: David Charleston remembers the day when Steelheart, a powerful Epic who rules the ruins of Chicago, killed his father. Ever since then, he's been learning everything he can about Epics so he can get vengeance for this father. When he finds the Reckoners, an organization devoted to killing the Epics, they agree to let him help
Warnings: a few deaths are on the gritty side, but nothing too dramatic.
Recommendation: If you're looking for a smooth blend of superhero fiction and dystopian adventure, this may be your thing, but fair warning that it's never heard of subtlety. 

Mild spoilers follow, but I'll try to keep them to a minimum. 
What makes this world richly textured:  

The worldbuilding for Steelheart, as usual for Sanderson, is striking. We learn early on that lots of people have been given powers after a red comet rises in the sky; in most universes that focus on superheroes, powers go to many people, all of whom use them for good, evil, or their purposes-- there's a hero for every villain, or at least an even enough mix that neither can win once and for all. In this near-future world of the Epics, however, everyone with powers uses them to steal, hurt, or even kill. Some people hold out hope that the heroes will come one day, but civilization has collapsed into a wasteland with small pockets ruled by whatever Epics in an area choose to band together and exploit or ignore the ordinary people. Quiet desperation is the order of the day, and the ordinary past seems more like a distant dream than something that happened in anyone's lifetime. 

All of this helps drive home both how high the stakes are for the Reckoners and how little hope they have of shifting this balance of power. They've killed a great many Epics, but the ones who are the most powerful and the most dangerous to ordinary people, the ones who rule cities, are also the hardest to kill. The Reckoners can take out some of their opponents, but taking out the biggest threats exposes all of them to risk of discovery, so they pick whatever targets they can and vanish back into the night. Thus far, a lot of their hesitation has been because killing many Epics with invulnerability requires knowing their weakness, the one thing that will weaken that Epic enough to be vulnerable to other threats. Sometimes they can figure it out with research, which is a large part of what David's been doing, but Epics will kill to hide their weaknesses. When David tell them that he's seen Steelheart bleed, however, the unit that found him agrees to take greater risks and join him in his quest for vengeance.

Sanderson is always good with imagery, but this book is particularly cinematic. After a while, you start to really see the steel walls everywhere, people keeping to the shadows, the endless night that serves as another symbol of Steelheart's power. David is an observant narrator, and we get plenty of vivid details through his eyes to establish that the power of the Epics shapes every moment in the lives of Newcago citizens. The Epics play to the reader's expectation of superheroes at first-- they have odd powers and wear unusual clothes and give themselves names straight out of Marvel of DC's B-list. In the mind's eye, they're just thrilling opponents until we hear about the body counts, or about what casual atrocities they've committed. Lots of YA dystopian novels are trendy right now, but this one stands out as having some of the best movie potential, especially given the number of well-staged fight scenes and the dramatic climax. Sanderson captures the best of several genres, and I was eager to read the sequel.


The red pen: 

For all the layered power levels of the Epics, David's own character is both flat and overpowered: he's excellent with a rifle, excellent at lying to dangerous people despite having almost no practice at it, and better at researching the Epics than an entire organization of researchers with more money and resources and years of lead time. To some extent I think that's a teenage wish-fulfillment issue of wanting to be better and smarter than the institutions that hold you back, but it doesn't quite work with the rest of book. There's an overall hope for people to rise up against the Epics, for the Reckoners to keep the dream of rebellion alive, but David comes off as more of a special snowflake than a member of a team of the face of a movement. Sanderson tries to give him a personality of sorts, but he ends up feeling like a generic teenage boy: he's smart and nerdy and not good at impressing Megan, a tough and beautiful Reckoner around his own age who captures his infatuation instantly. 

Megan develops a decent personality before too long, and Prof (the head of the cell) is also interesting in ways that would involve spoilers to explain, but the rest of the secondary characters are overly two-dimensional. Abraham and Cody make a good duo of the quiet one and the funny one, with occasional grace notes of backstory, but both also end up overshadowed by David tripping his way into useful information.The problem is even worse for Tia, the team's research expert, who mostly spends time being awed by his collection of notes. Some parts of it fit, and I absolutely buy that he has some of the best pictures and information about the Epics in the city where he's spent his whole life-- if he wants revenge on Steelheart, he needs to know how to take out the other Epics who help control the city. Past that, though, he also has top-drawer information about Epics in other places and overarching theories that the Reckoners have allegedly never considered. He's already the most motivated and idealistic in some ways, and the narrative still keeps pushing the idea of him as a visionary in a way that just doesn't flow.

David's only quirk is the lazy and awkward "I'm bad at metaphors." He makes odd comparisons (which are actually similes, as no one points out until book two) out loud, and I can't figure out if it's supposed to be endearing, socially awkward, or both. It might be bearable if he was consistently awful at them, but he makes a lot intelligent and imagery-rich comparisons in his head. The whole bad at metaphors thing only arises in group conversations, particularly to set him to to blush in front of Megan. The narrative just trying to hard to make him seem cute that it's off-putting. It seems like a small thing, but it was barely amusing the first time and continues to be painfully unfunny and forced for the rest of the book. 

The verdict: Reading this is undeniably fun and does a more interesting job than some of the usual superhero fare, but the main character is just too conveniently gifted and annoying to be the right Everyman for this universe.

Prospects: The next book in the Reckoners series is Firefight. It will followed by book three, Calamity, on February 16, 2016. 

Enjoyed this? Try:  
~The fusion of dystopian fiction and superheroes works well partly because it's unique, but I'll update this as soon as I think of something.  

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