Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

Book Synopsis: 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 will. 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.

Who else is sick to death of superhero movies? I know I sure as hell am. I’m sick of the brooding Batmen and I’m sick of how every character in the Marvel universe seems to be converging into Tony Stark. I’m sick of being told I should sympathize with these weirdos because they bear this tremendous burden, and yet all I see when I look at them is a crude power fantasy. I’m sick of movies like Deadpool and Suicide Squad which pretend to satirize the genre’s tropes but end up mindlessly playing them out without any meaningful subversion whatsoever. I’m just sick of it.

As soon as I’d heard that Brandon Sanderson had written a book about a terrorist cell assassinating superheroes, I knew I was going to give it a look. It sounded like a fun read and a good tonic after nearly two decades of Hollywood shoving superhero bullshit down our throats. From the synopsis, Steelheart seemed to hit all the beats of a good subversion: the epics aren’t the traditional good versus evil heroes and villains, but rather a uniformly corrupt collection bickering for power. The regular people that get caught up between the heroes aren’t just hostage-fodder there to be captured and rescued like pawns, but real people who don’t much appreciate these hyper-powered fucks coming into their lives and wreaking havoc. I really loved the idea of a novel written from the PoV of some regular schmucks responding to the self-aggrandizement and reckless vigilantism of superheroes by forming a black-ops group lurking in the shadows, fighting dirty, and doing whatever they can to neutralize the supers.

Sadly, I was disappointed.

I mean, I guess we get some of that good stuff, but Sanderson still has his heart and mind absorbed in the superhero genre, and he ended up mostly just replicating the genre’s tropes instead of really critiquing them. Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: Our hero’s name is David, a gifted young man with a troubled past. One day his father is shot before his very eyes and he swears vengeance against the super villains overrunning his city. He gets accepted into a secret shadow organization of assassins, and using his cunning, his determination and his gadgets, he takes out the villains and brings justice to the city. Along the way he gets romantically involved with a femme fatale who walks the line between enemy and friend.

So David doesn’t have superpowers, but what does that matter? Not having superpowers doesn’t mean he’s not a superhero; it means he’s Batman.

Without giving too much away, we do learn towards the end of the book that the Reckoners are not above accepting epics as their allies. In Sanderson’s universe, while superpowers themselves are a corrupting influence, it is possible and therefore ethically imperative for individuals with those powers to harness them and use them for good. This is where the book really shows its ultimate allegiance to the genre: ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ is a thematic staple for superhero stories, older than even the capes and spandex, and like I said earlier, I really am just sick to death of it. I’m sick of watching these super-powered school kids revel in their strength while pretending like they’re struggling under some great ethical burden. If you want to teach me a lesson about power, show me instead a character who has to compromise and struggle with it constantly, tolerate injustices while searching for a greater good, instead of just strolling out and murdering anyone you don’t like.

I won’t say I quite hated the book. As a native of Illinois, I enjoyed Sanderson’s dark, hyper-urban rendering of Chicago almost as much as I did Chris Nolan’s in The Dark Knight from five years prior. David himself is a clichéd to death protagonist and cringey as hell as a narrator, but I did like a lot of Sanderson’s secondary characters—their banter is what really ended up pulling me through the novel.

My ultimate prognosis is that Steelheart is: a superhero novel. Nothing special, but go ahead and give it a read if you’re interested in seeing working class Batman fight some rejects from the DC discard pile.

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