Read on for my full review.
This was a fun, fast book to read. It's Brandon Sanderson's take on a super hero (or more accurately, super villain) story. The premise is simple and well executed. As always, Sanderson's characters are interesting and creative and the plot races on towards the inevitable conclusion. Unlike other of his works, however, the system of magic is not explored at all. How the Epics gain their power is left a complete mystery that will undoubtedly be solved in future books (I believe this will be a trilogy).
Like many of Sanderson's recent, short novels and novellas, the pacing in Steelheart is fast and intense. Many chapters end with a cliffhanger and make you want to read even more. There are pleasant breaks where the characters chat or prepare, but most of the story feels like it's rushing head first into a massive confrontation. The story reads like an action movie, and I think that was the intent.
A few elements in the plot were predictable. There were a handful of secrets or twists to it, and knowing other works from Brandon Sanderson, you can see most of them coming. They were still cool and surprising, but not totally unexpected. I'm sure that in a longer work, or one that isn't targeted to young adults, Sanderson would have done a better job at hiding the hints or on using a more clever twist.
It was so refreshing to see such a nice set of characters, especially after the last book I read. They each have their own unique voices and personality traits which makes them unique. You don't need the author to tell you who is talking because you can tell just from the language. This is the hallmark of a well-crafted character. For example, the main character, David, is a young lad, clever, brash, and a bit of a nerd, but completely horrible at metaphors. He narrates the story, though, so these awful metaphors reoccur. Not only do they help deflate the tension at times, they also serve to give him a unique voice among the characters.
[When visiting a gun store:] “Wow,” I said. “It’s like... a banana farm for guns.”
“A banana farm,” Megan said flatly.
“Sure. You know, how bananas grow from their trees and hang down and stuff?”
“Knees, you suck at metaphors.”
Another cool character is Cody, the sniper. He's from the Southern US as you can tell from his "y'all", but he constantly refers to Scotland as his homeland. He's never been there, but he talks about his ancestors with pride, even if he gets a few details wrong. He doesn't understand how much of the technology works, so he's happy to attribute anything to tiny demons and fairies. It's a humorous quirk, but also a nod to Terry Pratchett, which was cool. The rest of the cast is equally delightful in their unique personality traits.
Setting / World Building
The story is set in an alternate version of Earth. Some time prior to the books events, a red star appeared in the sky- Calamity. Shortly after that, people started getting incredible powers and became known as Epics. Some can fly, others are invulnerable, other can control fire, etc, etc, you get the idea. The problem is that these super 'heroes' all turned evil and have wreaked havoc on the world. The main villain in this story is Steelheart, who has taken over Chicago (renamed Newcago). Steelheart is impervious to attacks, is super strong, can shoot energy beams, can fly, and when angry can convert non-living matter to steel. In the action-packed prologue, he becomes enraged and an entire building turns to steel. Shortly after that we learn that the entire city underwent a similar transformation- the Great Transferance.
The story takes place, then, in a city made entirely of steel. Many people live underground in streets and areas that have been crafted using another Epics powers. Even above ground, however, the city is covered in darkness since another Epic, Nightwielder, has sided with Steelheart and has covered the whole sky in darkness. There is no Sun, Moon, or stars; only Calamity can be seen in the Heavens. In this ominous, dark setting, the people either try to work under the Epics, hide from them, or seek to hunt them down. Every Epic has a weakness, after all, but the problem is trying to discover what that is without getting killed.
I am a big fan of Sanderson's work and I can say I am very pleased with this new book. While some of his books are sprawling epics that takes weeks to read, this is a small well-contained book that reads in a flash. It almost feels too short! As I understand, there will be a few more books in the series to flesh it out, but the story is perfectly fine on its own. The characters are interesting and unique, you feel like you would have a great time hanging out with them. The setting, like all of Sanderson's books, is clever and imaginative. I look forward to reading more books set in this universe.