This is the first non-Cosmere book I’ve read by Sanderson (not counting his Wheel of Time books), and my first step into his YA writing. I’m trying to read more YA stuff, as I recently qualified as a teacher and am always on the lookout for more books that I can recommend to students. A good YA book manages to be accessible whilst still telling a good, meaningful story. Steelheart absolutely succeeds there; I loved it, and I think kids will too.
Steelheart takes place in Chicago 10 years after the ‘Calamity’, a light that appeared above the Earth and transformed a small portion of the human population into ‘Epics’, giving them super powers. Sadly, no heroes arose, with Epic powers inevitably turning their wielders into sociopaths obsessed with power and domination over normals. The world has been ravaged by the Epics, with one of the few bastions of order being Chicago, now known (a bit ridiculously) as Newcago, which is under the utter control of Steelheart, an Epic with the powers of flight, invulnerability and the ability to turn objects into steel. David is a young man whose father was killed by Steelheart during his first subjugation of the city, and has spent his entire youth studying Epics and their weaknesses so he can eventually take his revenge. He stumbles across the Reckoners, a group of normals who hunt down and assassinate low level Epics. David joins the group and soon persuades them to expand their scope and aim for a higher target; Steelheart himself. David is the only person who has seen Steelheart bleed, and in his memory is hidden the secret to bringing him down.
Sanderson isn’t typically known for being a pacey writer; that’s not a criticism, his slow builds towards awesome climaxes is a real strength of his writing. As YA books should be, Steelheart is Sanderson picking up the pace, and this is a book that doesn’t really take a breath from start to finish, as David and the Reckoners work their way through Steelheart’s inner circle before tackling the man himself. The central mysteries at the core of the story are satisfying, and the plot has that pleasing sense of internal logic and consistency which has become one of Sanderson’s hallmarks. This isn’t quite the epic story of Sanderson’s other works, but it doesn’t need to be; it’s a more personal story, focusing on one man’s vendetta. I love Sanderson’s epic writing, but his slightly more focused work like The Emperor’s Soul are great as well. There’s some similarity between Steelheart and The Final Empire, the first Mistborn book, in that both are about a small, plucky group of rebels working to take down a dictator with God-like powers. Steelheart is probably the most action heavy book Sanderson’s written, and it’s actually brilliantly done. I tend to glaze over during action scenes, but the many conflicts in this novel, particularly during the finale, are genuinely really exciting.
David isn’t exactly ground breaking as a protagonist, but that’s often the case in YA books, providing a relatively blank slate for readers to project themselves onto. One trait I did find rather endearing is his inability to use metaphors, which is a delightfully weird little quirk which came up pretty regularly throughout the book. It’s the little details like this that set Steelheart apart from other YA fare. Steelheart is a scary villain, although for most of the novel he’s a remote presence; we could have done with more of him. The supporting cast are likeable, but thinly drawn, with most lacking the spark that Sanderson usually inserts into even his minor characters. Still, overall I like these characters enough that I’m looking forward to seeing what they get up to in the sequel coming later this year, Firefight.