Steelheart, by Brandon Sanderson (2013)
Content Warnings: Fake mixed with a little actual swearing, people dying in especially horrible ways, lots of violence.
For once, I have encountered a Brandon Sanderson book I didn’t like all that much.
The story is set in a world with supervillains but no superheroes, which, being as both the terms superheroes and supervillians are trademarked (no, seriously) they are called Epics instead. These Epics do whatever they please, such as disintegrating small children, an incident that is not only described in the prologue, but described in detail. And this is allegedly a Young Adult novel.
Our hero, David, as an eight-year-old witnesses said disintegration and that of several other innocents by an Epic, also watches as a different Epic, the eponymous Steelheart kills his father. Incidentally, David sees the otherwise invincible Steelheart bleed, which forms the thrust of the story.
The story then fast-forwards ten years, to a mostly post-apocalyptic post-Chicago called Newcago in the post-America called the Fractured States*. The Epics rule under the super-rule of Steelheart and commit various atrocities (they are supervillains), some of which are described, again, in detail. David seeks, and eventually joins the Reckoners, a group of Epic-killers. Note that I did not say freedom fighters or rebels. They are Epic-killers. I have ethical qualms here.
For one, they outright admit they are not trying to set up a new government, only to overthrow the old, Epic-ruled one—by killing them. Their methods are literally those of extremists, as they repeatedly do things because it was the “only” way. I’ve written before on this very blog about killing people with super-powers, such as the Gods in the The War Against the Gods. While Epic-killing might arguably fall under Tyrannicide, I’m not buying said argument. The Reckoners commit various acts which are closer to terrorism towards the people of Newcago than a mere assassination attempt against their evil overlord. In fact, one of the characters brings up this very point, which is never satisfactorily explained away.
What makes it worse is that Brandon Sanderson did write a book about Tyrannicide in the just sense. It was called Mistborn. In it the heroes were at least not generally harming the innocent.
In fact, aside from the setting and moral differences, you could just about switch the characters of Steelheart and Mistborn and get more or less the same books. This is fine, I guess, but I’d seriously like to see a different general plot than “overthrow the overlord”.
The rest of the book, aside from the dubiously ethical parts, contains battle scenes, explosions, people saying the word “slontze”, and the general sort of actiony things your general YA book for boys has. It also contains depressing parts, which, like in Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings are kinda a bit too depressing.
In closing, I give this a bittern of mixed feelings. If this wasn’t a YA book, I’d have held it to different standards, but as it is, I’m dubious about it.
* The names, as usual, are pretty cool if slightly dorky in the “Why would people actually call it that” way. In my main, as-of-yet unwritten series there used to be a nation called the Reunited States, but I found that a bit too hard to swallow, and renamed it just the Union.
I have always been inspired by the story of Fredrick Douglass, a slave who escaped slavery to become a renowned orator and author. His is not the story of a man who was second-rate, shooed into the spotlight only for his relative accomplishments compared to his past. What use would that be? No, he was not merely any random speaker, but Fredrick Douglass, a name that survives to this day in history books, no matter how often it is skimmed over.
A shameless plug for someone else.
I have seen, and admittedly indulged in that fan activity I will call the Fact Checking Game. It goes like this: First, you take some work of fiction, particularly a popular one, and you find some fascinating idea or claim it has. Then you deconstruct it with real world logic, checking all the facts and invariably coming up with an unrealistic or at least implausible conclusion. At this point, bemoaning that the creator did not think of this may commence. As a sequel, you can find some plausible counterpoint, and argue with the proponents of the former conclusion until the cows come home.
This is not, in itself, a bad thing.