Review: Steelheart

I received this book for free from BEA in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: SteelheartSteelheart by Brandon Sanderson
Series: Reckoners #1
Published by Delacorte BFYR on September 24, 2013
Genres: Adventure, Dystopian, Fantasy, Urban Fantasy
Pages: 384
Format: ARC
Source: BEA
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two-half-stars

Ten years ago, Calamity came. It was a burst in the sky that gave ordinary men and women extraordinary powers. The awed public started calling them Epics.

But Epics are no friend of man. With incredible gifts came the desire to rule. And to rule man you must crush his wills.

Nobody fights the Epics... nobody but the Reckoners. A shadowy group of ordinary humans, they spend their lives studying Epics, finding their weaknesses, and then assassinating them.

And David wants in. He wants Steelheart—the Epic who is said to be invincible. The Epic who killed David's father. For years, like the Reckoners, David's been studying, and planning—and he has something they need. Not an object, but an experience.

He's seen Steelheart bleed. And he wants revenge.

I consider Brandon Sanderson one of my very favorite authors. Anything he writes automatically goes on my wishlist, and I’ve enjoyed every book of his I’ve read. With Steelheart, however, there was a time where I wasn’t even sure if I would be able to rate this book three stars at the end. This book doesn’t live up to the other Sanderson novels I’ve read, the first in three other series (The Stormlight Archive, Alcatraz, and Mistborn). Of course, I’m sure different sorts of readers may like this one better, but I’m left rather disappointed, probably due to my exceedingly high expectations.

As ever, where Brandon Sanderson shines is in the world building. Sanderson has a real knack for creating unique worlds that run on different principles, following that logic through. This world, while not as disparate as his epic fantasies, compels the imagination. Superhero stories have always held a fascination for me, and, with the Epics, Sanderson has done something wholly new, to my experience anyway, with that concept. The Epics are villains, every last one of them, proving the old adage that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

That premise may suggest to you, and rightly so, that Steelheart gets rather dark. This is not a world of brave, unparalleled heroism, of good triumphing over evil. Even the good guys have dark secrets and motivations. Take, for example, the main character, David. He’s a fairly average teen, except for that whole thing where he’s dedicated his life to avenging his father, with the single-minded devotion of Inigo Montoya.

Steelheart, the titular villain, rules over a Newcago, a Chicago made of steel where the sun literally doesn’t shine. Steelheart and his cronies, including Nightwielder who blocks the sun from the city, keep systems going and food available to the people, in exchange for utter domination. Epics, these super-powered individuals, can do anything to any person without recrimination; the government of the US limps along in some areas of the Fractured States, but the Epics truly have free reign. It’s a horrific picture, rather like humanity has begun involving and Magneto’s crew have subjugated everyone, and there are no X-Men.

Sanderson also proves himself a skilled plotter once again. In every novel, Sanderson always manages to surprise me with something, if not with an actual twist then with exactly how something worked, even if I had it generally figured out. That always makes his books that extra bit of exciting to read.

However, the character-building in Steelheart really left me wanting so much more. In his other novels, I’ve found his characters almost immediately compelling, not just the main characters, but the supporting ones as well. With Steelheart, I didn’t much care for a single character. The Reckoners, a team of humans killing Epics to prove it can be done and that fighting back is possible, should be a quirky bunch with all the personality of the crew of the Firefly. Sadly, though they’re quirky, none of them really coalesced into feeling real and their witty banter was seriously lacking.

Many of the problems lie in the narrator, David. He alternates between an encyclopedic knowledge of weaponry and Epics and mindless devotion to his cause of killing Steelheart and drooling over Megan. He instaloves all over the place on this girl because she’s super hot and can fight. Wow, what a solid foundation for a relationship. As far as I can tell, Sanderson’s pushing this ship, but he’s got a lot of work to do to make that happen, because they have no chemistry: David’s a kid with pathetic puppy love and Megan’s…I don’t really know.

Anyway, David. Not only do I not found David to be a particularly interesting character, his narration is frequently annoying. Idiosyncracies help build realistic characters, but, in this case, I feel like David was given one idiosyncracy and sent on his way like the work was done. That idiosyncracy: making really ridiculous metaphors constantly, like:

“He had a smile like a parrotfish, which I’ve always assumed look like parrots, though I’ve never actually seen either.”

What incredibly useful narration there, David! You have just managed to tell the reader nothing on several levels. Congratulations! There are many such instances, and it’s made into a running gag throughout the book, but it’s one that failed to make me laugh; the only response it provoked from me was eye-rolling. I can imagine this working from a character who isn’t otherwise so deadly serious, but it didn’t fit the rest of David’s characterization.

Then there’s the Southern Scot, who embodies every stereotype of American Southerners and the Scottish, down to a monologue on the bagpipes that is TOTALLY plot-relevant (SARCASM). This guy, Cody, threw me out of the book every time he referred to individuals as “y’all” and groups as “all y’all.” I’ve been informed that some southerners do use “y’all” this way, but it makes my eye twitch because “y’all” is an abbreviation of “YOU ALL.” IT IS PLURAL. Also, why is this necessary? As with David’s quirk, I feel like the weaknesses of the characterization are largely shortcuts taken to add humor to the novel and make them seem more real and quirky. Sadly, this backfired big time.

Though Steelheart is thus far my least favorite of Sanderson’s works, he can still world build like few other authors. The Reckoners series will be a good choice for fans of supervillains and world building. More character-focused readers, like myself, may struggle with this one.

Favorite Quote:

“‘I only shoot people when the job calls for it,’ she said. ‘You’re trying to make small talk; you’re simply not very good at it. That’s not a shooting offense.'”

17 responses to “Review: Steelheart”

  1. I am seriously amazed that you are still reviewing books from BEA. Not that it’s a bad thing, but I am just imagining all the review books piled up and oh man, that’d make me insane to have around o.o.

    WHERE IS YOUR WISHLIST BTWZ. One of the posts I intend to comment on is your book haul. And BS is on it; clearly I’ve missed it and missed your bday o.o. Too bad this book wasn’t up to his usual standards. (ALSO TY for saying I can list you as recommender for Mistborn! Even if I’m not reading it soon soon, I’m really excited still. Also, random but you didn’t put together that list of books people bought because of your reviews did you?). Giselle really loved this one, so I am quite eager to compare your review to hers — I wonder if it’s because it was her first exposure to his work, and you’d already read and loved his other work? As you said, high expectations.

    “This world, while not as disparate as his epic fantasies, compels the imagination.” “Superhero stories have always held a fascination for me… The Epics are villains, every last one of them, proving the old adage that absolute power corrupts absolutely.” <– That sounds quite exciting. There aren't too many superhero villain stories in YA at least.

    "Even the good guys have dark secrets and motivations." <– Moral ambiguity for the win? Except for the single-minded revenge aspect, I suppose. But I agree with you – that sounds like a horrifying world and also realized quite well. Blocking the sun would also, I imagine, make people quite miserable.

    "Sanderson always manages to surprise me with something, if not with an actual twist then with exactly how something worked, even if I had it generally figured out. That always makes his books that extra bit of exciting to read." <– Do you think that this is something that high fantasies do really well in general? I was thinking the other day about how I often find their plots unpredictable because it's usually some expansion on the world that you don't fully know yet…

    "With Steelheart, I didn’t much care for a single character. The Reckoners, a team of humans killing Epics to prove it can be done and that fighting back is possible, should be a quirky bunch with all the personality of the crew of the Firefly." “Wow, what a solid foundation for a relationship.” How many books does he have to make the ship sail? 3? 4? Because the puppy love could transform realistically…maybe.

    That quote doesn’t make much sense. If you’ve never seen either a parrot or a fish, why are you comparing a smile to the parrotfish? That’ll just stick out to readers.

    “There are many such instances, and it’s made into a running gag throughout the book, but it’s one that failed to make me laugh” <– Ooh, was it supposed to be humorous? o.o. oops, I guess I didn't have the right reaction either.

    "every time he referred to individuals as “y’all” and groups as “all y’all.” I’ve been informed that some southerners do use “y’all” this way, but it makes my eye twitch because “y’all” is an abbreviation of “YOU ALL.” IT IS PLURAL." I suppose the copy editor left that in because it was the quirk. But that does seem weird. I use y'all on occasion, but I don't think I've ever read or heard of an instance where someone used it to refer to one individual…

    Ooh. Yeah. I'm a character-focused reader. I haven't ordered this yet because I'll read Mistborn soon, but it's good to know.

    Also good to know that being bad at small talk does not = getting shot. I'd be long dead before now if that were the case…
    Christina @ Christina Reads YA recently posted…Why Fantasy Trumps Contemporary (for Me)My Profile

    • Christina Franke says:

      I’ll be through most of them, minus the ones that I just put into my permanent collection for whenever I have time (which is a pretty small number of adult titles bc loooong), by mid-October. Since August, it’s been miserable. WHY DO THEY ALL COME OUT IN THE SAME MONTH AND A HALF SPAN? WHYYYYY?

      BS was on it? *tilts head*

      I did try that, but only a couple people responded. I also realized how much work it was going to be to actually do the WP move, so HA HA to celebrating it right away with a blogoversary thing. NOPE.

      Perhaps so. It’s also really action-packed and Giselle does go in for action a bit more than I do.

      The world building was great. I just feel like the characters felt rushed. Perhaps because he has so many long, complex books coming out in the same year?

      The sun-blocking thing was the one aspect I wasn’t sure about, but I can’t explain why without spoilers. I would say the desire for a revenge kill is pretty morally ambiguous. He’s still the hero and taking that guy out would in some sense be a service to humanity.

      Hmmm, interesting theory. With epic fantasy, there is that unfolding of the world, but I think also epic fantasy is willing to go further and do things books usually don’t. They kill characters or maim them horribly. They tend to be more brutal and unpredictable. I think writers are a bit freer writing them, perhaps also because they’re not generally for a young audience.

      Maybe. The ending bit about their relationship here continued to be cheesy and lame. This guy has written some good ships in the past, so why? WHY?

      RIGHT? Like, okay, this kid did read the encyclopedia, so he might know what they are, but there are lots of things that I’ve heard of but they wouldn’t pop into my head for a description. Plus, neither fish nor parrots really smile, so wtf?

      It is apparently a thing, but I do not accept this. *shudders* “y’all” is bad enough but at least kind of funny.

      So would I. Though I’m the grumpy small talk avoider, not the person who keeps trying like David.

  2. Kayla Beck says:

    Okay, I’m not reading this all the way through because I’m dying to read the book (can you believe that I pre-ordered it?!). Seeing you give it 3 stars usually means that I will give it 4, so I am EXCITED! *dances*

    Okay, sometimes I agree with you, too, or hate it more, but THAT IS THE EXCEPTION.
    Kayla Beck recently posted…Blog Tour (Guest Post, Excerpt, & Giveaway): Tied by Laney McMannMy Profile

  3. I had to admit I wondered what you would think of this while I was reading it because I knew you were a fan of his fantasy novels. At least I’ve got a hint that I might like his other books if I tried them! And ugh, David’s habit with the stupid metaphors. I wanted to kill that dead pretty early on. Great review, Christina!

    • Christina Franke says:

      I missed that you read this one. Huh. That’s odd. But yeah I wouldn’t judge him off of this one. The tone’s just awkward. Mostly it’s super dark but with this weird campiness thrown in and that just did. not. work. Like, he can do silly and campy or dark and fantastical, but apparently he should not mix them.

  4. Ellis says:

    So this is disappointing. I’ve been waiting on your review for a while. The opinions have been a bit divided, but we feel the same about Mistborn, so I thought yours would be the most helpful. Honestly, I’m scared to even continue Mistborn. I loved the first book so much. I guess it’s just one of those illogical jumps my brain likes to make.

    I do love how Sanderson is always so ambiguous about heroism and that he’s not afraid to make a villain an actual villain. I agree about his world-building. His imagination is really something. It’s sad that the characters fell so flat in this one. So sad.
    Ellis recently posted…Top Ten Best Sequels EvahMy Profile

    • Christina Franke says:

      You’re telling me. You know my feels better than anyone, and I just feel so let down. I would have rated lower, but I know that were it anyone else and I didn’t have expectations, it would have been an okay read and worth a three. But he can just do so much better.

      YESSSS to the darkness of human nature in his books. It’s great.

  5. I’m sorry that this book ended up being a bit of a disappointment for you, Christina. I hate it when that happens! I do love a solidly built fantasy world, but not at the expense of relatable, well-drawn characters. I may read this one eventually (especially if later installments garner more praise), but for now I think I’ll stick to trying out the Mistborn trilogy.
    Amanda @ Late Nights with Good Books recently posted…Top Ten Best Sequels EverMy Profile

    • Christina Franke says:

      So am I. 🙁

      Mistborn is SUCH a good place to start, unless you like to save the best for last. Gah, that book. It’s hard to believe that and this were the same author. I’m listening to a short story of his now, and I’m pretty much convinced it’s a waste of his talent to do anything but epic fantasy, though I can see where that sucks for him. So he needs to experiment. Meanwhile, I’ll weep in a corner.

  6. Jessie says:

    Aaah, reviews for this seem to be all over the place. The first ones were all “I LOVE THIS” and now.. closer to release date, I am seeing lower ratings. I am still buying and excited for this because, hello – massive Sanderson fangirl over here, but I am… full of trepidation. As my ellipses should show you.

    I did NOT know you had read The Way of Kings. God that book is a brick, but it’s probably my very favorite. Followed closely by Warbreaker, then Mistborn, then Elantris, THEN the WoT books.

    I love his worldbuilding too. Each books/series have such solid and creative worldbuilding. It’s impressive. As an aside – have you heard of the Cosmos theory? That all the series and books are linked together (and feature an appearance of a being called HOID? Which, according to fans, means “Hero of Infinite Dimensions.”) I don’t know if HOID shows up here, but he’s been in every other one I’ve read.

    “single-minded devotion of Inigo Montoya” – favorite line of this review.
    Jessie recently posted…15 Day Blogger Challenge – Blog AppealMy Profile

  7. This book got 5 stars from all of my friends (except you). And again I find myself in a little black sheep corner with you. I was also annoyed with David’s metaphors and Cody was not funny at all. Better have no comic relief than this, it was only annoying.
    Idea behind the book and world building were awesome as usual but characters were not up to Sanderson’s usual standards.
    Dragana @ Bookworm Dreams recently posted…Book review: Steelheart by Brandon SandersonMy Profile

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