Steelheart: Supers & Metaphors Gone Bad

Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

Madeleine’s score: It was okay—wouldn’t read it again
(3/5 cool points)

What if there were people with superpowers? And what if they were all villains?

In the near future, Epics have taken over the world. In the U.S.—now called the Fractured States—Epics do as they please, ruling and fighting over different geographic areas as civilians try to keep their heads down and find some semblance of a normal life. The most powerful of these Epics is Steelheart, who rules the people and lesser Epics of Chicago (now Newcago) without being challenged because he’s invulnerable. Or is he?

David saw Steelheart bleed a decade ago when he was a kid, right before Steelheart murdered his father. Now David’s a teen armed with tons of knowledge about the Epics, his favorite rifle, and a thirst for revenge. If the Reckoners let him join their ranks, maybe he can actually get it.

Steelheart was my introduction to Brandon Sanderson’s work. I’ve heard quite a bit about his books, particularly his Mistborn Saga and The Stormlight Archive. These books are so popular that I’m currently stuck in the limbo of the library waitlist until a copy frees up. However, there was one Brandon Sanderson book available to me, and that was the first book of his young adult The Reckoners trilogy.

The premise of The Reckoners series is cool. The idea that a large number of humans would suddenly get superpowers and all of them use them for evil is intriguing. As a result, this book has less of a comic book feel and more of a post-apocalyptic vibe, which is right up my alley. Sanderson’s writing style is engaging and smooth, albeit simplistic. He describes the world in vibrant detail while also leaving room for the reader’s imagination. This all made for a quick and easy read, which is sometimes exactly what I’m looking for.

I couldn’t review Steelheart without mentioning its prologue. When it comes to prologues, I often question their value. If it’s important enough to include, then why not include it in the main body of the book? But Sanderson’s reason for the prologue seems to be the ten-year time jump that happens between it and the first chapter, and because of this, it works. The darkness of the prologue made me second guess that this book is intended for young people. Everybody has their own triggers, things in stories that get to them. Some are put off of a story if there’s cursing, others if there’s sex, etc. For me, one of my triggers is kids getting hurt. When an infant is murdered (alongside a number of other innocent victims) in the prologue, I had to take a beat to recuperate. Even with a device that makes me squeamish, it’s impossible to deny that Sanderson came out swinging with a dark, cinematic prologue that made the world crystal clear. And the book really kept the entertainment rolling from there. Good action, quirky characters, and intriguing superpowers abound.

But it wasn’t all superlative, superpowered fun. The thing that irked me more than any other was the atrocious metaphors throughout the book. It’s a running joke that the protagonist is terrible at coming up with metaphors, and as a result, the metaphors are cringe-inducing. And boy, are there a ton of them. Even though this is meant to be funny to young readers, and my understanding of Brandon Sanderson is that he’s a talented writer, it feels like he might have given David this quirk as an excuse for bad writing. Furthermore, even when the hero manages to use a half-decent metaphor, it’s often out of place because of the world in which the story is set.

For example, at one point David says, “I was like the guy who had brought the spoiled shrimp cocktail to the party, causing everyone to throw up for a week straight.” As a writer, it’s my opinion that metaphors should be both appropriate to the story world and the POV character using them. Because David lost his father when he was a kid and grew up working in a factory, reading old Encyclopedias for entertainment, it’s highly unlikely that he would have attended, heard of, or even read about shrimp cocktail at a dinner party. Not only is it a slightly awkward metaphor, it’s also just out of place in the book period.

Besides metaphors, there were a couple of other things that I feel could have been approached with a bit more intentionality. The big reveals to the mysteries threaded throughout the story weren’t all that “big.” Sanderson showed his hand a few too many times in the early parts of the book before what would otherwise have been excellent plot twists. Even though it was a bit predictable, the plot was still satisfying because it delivered on promises made. We got the answers we needed. Were they a surprise? Not so much. But at least we got them.

Finally, Sanderson is known not to use our modern curse words in his writing. He makes up new curse words, and not just for his YA books. I think this can be effective in adding depth to fantasy cultures. And for a teen book, it totally makes sense not to use our traditional expletives. But the substitutes he uses in Steelheart are so incredibly cheesy (Sparks! Calamity!) that I found rather than adding value to the dialogue/story, they take it away. Perhaps it would have been better not to utilize cursing in any form, but what the spark do I know.

Steelheart is a fun, effortless read. Personally, I give it 3 stars. But because I’m not the age of its intended audience and most of my gripes are about devices that Sanderson used for the benefit of teens, I would bump my rating up to 4 stars for that age group.

As for whether it’s appropriate for a twelve-year-old, well, that highly depends on the kid. It could certainly be too dark for some, just right for others. If you’re an adult, it’s a great choice for vacation reading or a brain rest in between meatier books. I’ll have to give Sanderson’s adult fiction a try. Assuming that sparking library waitlist gets shorter.

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