Brandon Sanderson
Steelheart Cover

Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson is an exciting twist on superheroes…and supervillains


Steelheart, first in the Reckoners series, may have the broadest appeal of Brandon Sanderson's growing variety of imaginary worlds. At a time when Marvel and DC turnout multiple blockbusters at the movie theater each year-think The Avengers, Iron Man, the Dark Knight, and Man of Steel-interest in superheroes is at an all time high and Sanderson's look at the dark potential of super-powered humans is a timely and relevant addition to the genre. For a guy who kicked of his career with epic fantasy, it also shows the breadth of his imagination and flexibility.

Rather than swords and sorcery, Sanderson's premise is flight and telekinesis, invisibility and fire. What if the supernatural powers of Superman, the Flash, and Captain Americadidn't just make them more than human, but also corrupted them, too?

For a genre that has always been willing to show the light and the dark sides of human nature, compounded exponentially by the bright and dark natures of the heroes and villains holding those powers, it's not an entirely new look, but it does take a new spin. Any reader of comic books knows that almost every superhero is just as likely to take a turn to the dark side, but only in Sanderson's world does that actual endowment of superpowers nearly guarantee that the turn will happen. Power corrupts, Sanderson says, quoting Lord Acton, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Sanderson's super-powered humans-or Epics-are power hungry and evil, killing and taking at whim.

How does humanity survive?

Told from the perspective of David, a normal human who at the outset of the story accidentally witnesses one of the nascent superheroes, Steelheart-of whom his description of superpowers it eerily similar to the better known "Man of Steel," Superman-Steelheart is about the quest to find a way to defeat the villainous super-powered humans that have carved out fiefdoms for themselves across America (and presumably the rest of the world). David is obsessed with understanding each Epic, charting their powers, their weaknesses, and more as he plots his revenge against Steelheart for the death of his father.

Conceived in 2007 when Sanderson was still a newly published author, Steelheart may be recognition by his publisher that he has a platform and an audience that will buy Sanderson's books, almost no matter what he writes. This isn't to say that Steelheart is not good, or that it would not have been published otherwise, but it is a step outside of Brandon's brand of epic fantasy, a bit more young adult than Elantris, Warbreaker, or the Mistborn series, and far more comic book than anything else Sanderson has yet produced.

In that sense, I see in Steelheart the most potential of any of Sanderson's own works (I'm not including the Wheel of Time since I consider that to be Robert Jordan's creative genius to which Sanderson added his considerable writing ability). The story, set in a post-apocalyptic and dystopian Chicago (Newcago, Sanderson's renames it), featuring day-after-tomorrow weapons and technology, capped supervillains, and a cast of colorfully written characters, would translate well into film or television. Videogames could be easy to add to the brand, as well.

All good ideas aside, though, I wish Sanderson had spent just a little more time with the novel. The plot feels rushed and the relationships only superficially developed. When David meets Megan, about the most we learn about his attraction to her is about how she looks in a short, red dress and her ability to shoot a gun. I'm no stranger to the attraction of a woman in a short skirt (cue up Cake's Short Skirt, Long Jacket, please), but the depth of the relationship and David's motives never really deepen much more. I suspect that this is in large part because Sanderson is writing for a young adult audience, but age has never been a reason to short-thrift the young. Gary D. Schmidt's Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now prove that you don't need to be superficial or shallow, nor do you have to treat teens like they can't understand what it means to grow up. Granted, we're reading about superheroes here, and maybe my expectations are too high, but the driving force of the conflict is David's relationships, and Sanderson's handling feels rushed.

That said, Sanderson executes the premise almost flawlessly. His Epics are epic villains, his plotting is careful, and the final twist is a satisfying moment for the triumph of good-real good, not just the 'good guy'-over evil. Borrow or buy, Steelheart is a welcome addition to the fast growing Sanderson collection, one that you should read soon.