Book Review: Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart

I need to stop reading YA novels.

I never like them. Maybe I’m picking out the wrong ones. Maybe it’s my own fault. Maybe I read YA books with a more critical eye, so as to reaffirm “I’m an adult!” Then again, I watch a lot of cartoons, and those seem to hold up a little bit better to semi-critical viewing. Or maybe I just pick out better cartoons than YA books, who knows?

Either way, I just finished Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart. Sanderson is kind of a celebrity in Fantasy literature- he’s the guy who was picked to finish up the Wheel of Time series after Robert Jordan died. I haven’t actually read any Robert Jordan (mostly because there’s like dozen Wheel of Time books and they’re all a thousand pages long), but getting tapped to finish something so big is kind of a Big Deal. Sanderson’s also a very prolific author in his own right, with something around 20 novels to his name. He also taught a writing class at Bringham Young University, with the lectures posted online, which I found kind of interesting.

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I’ve read Sanderson’s Mistborn series, but not much of his other stuff- so I figured I’d branch out. Steelheart is Sanderson’s take on superheroes (sort of). See, in Steelheart, people (called “Epics,” in the novel) suddenly start manifesting superpowers … and this apparently instantly makes them into murderous assholes. Universally. Obligatory YA dystopia ensues. Epics aren’t really superheroes, obviously … but I don’t want to call them supervillains, either. Mostly because when I think of a proper supervillain, I think of someone with a sense of style. The best supervillains have an air of grand theatricality to them: Doctor Doom, Magneto, even Cobra Commander. In Steelheart, the evil Epics are mostly just defined as … being evil, and that’s about it. Seriously, in the prologue, an Epic disintegrates a baby, just to show how moustache-twirlingly evil he is. It feels forced, like Sanderson is trying to tell other, beardier Fantasy authors “see? I can be grimdark too! Really! Grr!” The thing is, the tone of the rest of the book is more of a fast paced adventure than a truly grim dystopia, so the baby-zapping thing just becomes oddly hilarious in retrospect.

Steelheart centers around a kid named David, whose father was murdered by the titular Steelheart, one of those Epic jerkwads. And so, David swears revenge, falling in with a band of resistance fighters who call themselves the Reckoners. Together, they tear around dystopian Chicago (sorry, NewCago), and get into firefights and try to take down Steelheart and his evil reign. Pretty straightforward.

The problem is … well, Steelheart has a lot of problems. The first being David himself. The book’s written from his point of view, and his thoughts can be boiled down to one of three points:

      1. REVEEEEEENGE!
      2. Guns are cool.
      3. This Megan girl is really hot.

Oh, did I mention one of the Reckoners was a smokin’ blonde named Megan? Because of course there is. I suppose having such a simplistic thought process is pretty indicative of a typical teenage male, but it makes for a dull, nigh obnoxious kind of character. Then again, I’m cynical enough to find most teenagers obnoxious just on principle, so … realism?

Compounding David’s general obnoxiousness is Sanderson’s absolute tin ear for dialogue. As I mentioned before, the book is set in dystopian Chicago, ten years after Steelheart has taken over. And yet, there’s a point when The Reckoners are almost mugged by an armed, desperate mob. They negotiate, and one of the muggers says, verbatim: “This is not a place of deals.” Either that mugger was a LARP nerd, or Sanderson has never heard a real person speak, like, ever.

And that’s before you get into the made up swear words. Again, it’s a YA novel, so I can understand toning down language for the kiddies. On the other hand, the book is supposed to be set in just-in-the-future Chicago. There’s absolutely no reason people would say things like “Sparks! You slontze!” when “Fuck! You shithead!” would perfectly do. I think Sanderson may have just gotten a bit too ambitious with the fake swears after watching a Battlestar Galactica marathon.

The language isn’t the only part of Steelheart’s setting that doesn’t make any sense. Future Chicago (sorry, NewCago), is a Dystopian state, because all YA books published since 2003 are required to be set in arbitrary dystopias. And yet, despite being an eternally dark, post apocalyptic wasteland, Steelheart has a whole army of goons, with helicopters, energy weapons, and even power armor. There’s a little bit about how one of Steelheart’s Epic allies, Conflux, has energy powers to keep everything running, but I still couldn’t help but wonder where they’re getting or building such fancy-ass electronics and equipment in the first place.

And on top of that, the Epics themselves don’t make any sense. Not in the ‘haw haw, people can’t fly!’ way- I’m more than willing to suspend my disbelief. My problem isn’t with Epics having superpowers- it’s just that the superpowers don’t make any sense. The best superheroes have power sets that more or less work together, thematically. Spider Man does whatever a spider can. The Flash is the fastest man alive. Superman is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and he can leap tall buildings in a single bound. You get the idea. In contrast, Steelheart can fly, is invincible, shoots energy blasts from his hands … and he can inexplicably turn inorganic matter into steel. Which mostly seems to be there so Chicago (calling it Newcago just sounds dumb), can be a post apocalyptic steel wasteland. Or, there’s another character with illusion powers- as well as serial reincarnation. Because those go together.

One of Sanderson’s claims to fame as a writer is the intricacy of his magic systems. He’s one of those SF/F writers who goes well in depth to figuring out the categories and rules, and then how to manipulate them in turn. Maybe Sanderson is planning to explain stuff in the sequels, but in the first book, it just comes off as contrived.

I’ve read better books, that’s for sure. Heck, I’ve even read better Sanderson books. Mistborn has pretty much the same premise: “a scrappy teenager joins a ragtag bunch of adventurers plot to take down an unkillable, superpowered warlord in a crapsack dystopia.” It’s just that Mistborn is a far more interesting (if not perfect) novel. Maybe it’s the fact that Mistborn wasn’t written in first person, or maybe it wasn’t marketed as a YA book, or maybe it’s just that Mistborn came first, and therefore Sanderson was using fresher ideas.

So yeah. Unless you’re a huge, huge Sanderson fan, I’d suggest giving Steelheart a pass. As for me, I’m gonna have to get back to reading grown up books. Maybe something with more boobs and less disintegrated babies.

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