Steelheart (2013) by Brandon Sanderson

I’ve had mixed feelings on Sanderson’s earlier YA offerings, not able to engage with the Alcatraz books, and finding The Rithmatist a messy effort, but “Steelheart” worked really well for me. Compared to Sanderson’s adult offerings, it’s much more juvenile, shorter in length, less ambitious, thinner, and ultimately less interesting, but it didn’t feel intentionally handicapped in the way The Rithmatist did for me; this felt much more focused and part of a cohesive vision from Brandon.

The characters are painfully thin (although the ending is a big enough game-changer that I’m legitimately interested in how a few will develop), the plot is pretty straightforward (in typical Sanderson style it’s in many ways just a justification to get to a killer ending, but in shorter novels like this that can be a blessing pacing wise, but also make the story feel kind of shallow), but the worldbuilding is the real clincher. The idea of a world with only supervillains is really interesting. I’d heard of this series only as “Brandon’s YA superhero series” so I was surprised to see it was dystopic.

I thought there was an interesting moral question at the heart of the book – what does it tell us that all the superpowered people end up malevolent? The ending seems to point to there being a worldbuilding answer, rather than it being a comment on human nature or anything. I’m disappointed by that, as I was thinking this was perhaps some interesting moral ground for Sanderson, but I imagine his worldbuilding elements explaining this will be compelling as usual. I’d just have rathered more of a human nature angle; I’m fascinated by the thought of those with superpowers ending up inevitably corrupt not because of magic reasons, but for moral, real ones.

I found some of the construction of the book a bit workmanlike, like the characterisation of the Reckoners, and David’s bad metaphor running gag. But I’ve read something like fifteen Sanderson books in a row before reading this one, so that might just be a product of me getting super used to his style at this point.

I don’t particularly like the YA genre much, but I like that these are shorter novels; I think Brandon sometimes benefits from length restrictions. I prefer the Legion series as his short fiction goes, but thought this worked better than the Rithmatist.

Also, the cascade of plot twists at the ending was done better than the last few Sanderson books I’ve read. I was quite impressed by them. It wasn’t as much of a triumphant shock as some of the Mistborn novels, but they did legitimately surprise me, and I was excited to be so caught off-guard.

I give it three tensors, and a ninja alligator.


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