Steelheart is the first book in Brandon Sanderson’s popular young adult (YA) series, The Reckoners. Sanderson has been a household name in fantasy literature with other popular series such as Mistborn and Stormlight Archive. However, Steelheart is not fantasy at all; it’s YA, it’s science-fiction, and it’s superheroes! In very different direction for the author, but one he does very well, Sanderson decides to take a unique spin on the series. What if the superheroes (called “Epics” in the series) were not heroes at all, but rather evil tyrants and villains? And what if your real heroes were just a normal ragtag group of freedom fighters (called “Reckoners”) with no powers? Interesting direction, Mr. Sanderson. I was certainly intrigued, but let’s find out if it is worth our time and money, shall we?
Violence: There is a fair amount of violence here. We see people dying in large volumes as Epics show little regard for human life. The lead character witnesses his father die. Many characters, particularly the Reckoners, use guns, knives, and explosives to take on the Epics. The violence isn’t overly descriptive, but the book is still violent throughout.
Sexual Content: Very little. The main character (David) ogles a character he finds attractive.
Drug/Alcohol Use: None.
Spiritual Content: Not much, but many of the Epics are almost regarded as gods and certainly have no issue presenting themselves as such.
Language/Crude Humor: Some. A few instances of the use of h*** and d***. Additionally, in typical Sanderson fashion, there are quite a few made-up swear words, such as “sparks” or “calamity.”
Other Negative Content: There is no doubt that the lead character, David, is driven by revenge and while it is certainly understandable why he would be upset, the obsession is shown to be a toxic and blinding characteristic of his. Additionally, normal, non-superpowered people, are effectively slaves to the Epics and have little-to-no freedom. They live in fear of superpowered oppression.
Positive themes: In the same vein as just above, the book tackles the clear differences between revenge and justice. We see the Reckoners tackle these issues while also working together as a team — a team that is willing to make heroic sacrifices.
It took me a long time to finally get around to reading this book. Interestingly enough, I first discovered it when I was waiting in an airport bookstore in 2013 (the year it was released). The book immediately intrigued me because it was a unique take on superheroes and I almost bought it right then and there. Alas, I did not, but kept my eye on it for many years. After I had become a full-fledged Sanderson fan, I finally picked it up and dove right into the series. I was actually on a night shift schedule with a lot of down time during work hours and just consumed this book (and the rest of the series) in that time span. During those long boring hours, I needed a book like this one that is fast-paced and fun to read.
Steelheart, as a book, is a solid read with a lot of good stuff. I have a few qualms with it, especially when compared to Sanderson’s other series, but as a whole, it is really good. The series follows David, the lead protagonist, who as a young boy witnessed the death of his father at the hands of an Epic named… well… Steelheart. This is the event that led David to want to join the Reckoners, an underground resistance organization, to exact revenge on Steelheart. David is driven by this need to get revenge that borders on obsession, as he has been spending every waking moment of his life studying the Epics (not just Steelheart) to find out their powers and weaknesses.
I’ll back up really quick because you may be asking, “How did these people get powers?” Well, there was a mysterious event 10 years prior to the start of the book called “Calamity” and this led to dozens of people getting superpowers, but instead of a bunch of cape crusaders running around, they instead used their powers for evil. Many did evil just for the sake of it, while others, such as Steelheart, set themselves up as Kings, Queens, and Emperors. Steelheart did this in Chicago, and renamed the city Newcago. Each of the Epics have their own powers and a weakness. For example, Steelheart’s powers are very similar to Superman, such as flying and invulnerability, and his weakness is… well… I won’t say because that would be a total spoiler! Let’s just say these super baddies didn’t take Uncle Ben’s advice, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” Thanks Uncle Ben, we truly appreciate those words, but sadly, these guys did not get that memo.
David is a fun character to read. He is very smart, resourceful, creative, and a bit awkward when he finds himself around characters that he admires for one reason or another. There is a character known as Prof that David looks up to and a girl that he finds attractive, all of which leads to some funny dialogue. So while he is a freedom fighter at heart who had to grow up fast, he still acts like an awkward teenage boy at times. This is where the book may or may not be appealing to you. It is very much a YA novel. Unlike other Sanderson books where the characters sit around for hours discussing philosophy and religion, then jump into action, this book is typical YA where the conversations are shorter and the action occurs all throughout. While I personally loved the constant activity in the book, the characters did feel less fleshed out than I would have liked, but once again, this is common aspect of many YA novels. The characters often fell into typical themes and didn’t break from their molds too easily. For example, you had the tough girl who was always distant, and the stoic leader who had to sound gruff and hard. Did I dislike this? Not at all, I love a good YA book, but I generally appreciate more complicated character development, which is something you will get from other Sanderson works.
The action, as I said, is constant and well done in typical Sanderson fashion. It keeps you on the edge of your seat and makes you really feel for David and the Reckoners. They are vastly outgunned by these superpowered Epics. The book just gives off the sense that these characters really stand no chance, but they still have to try because otherwise the common person will always suffer under the evils of the Epics. There were many moments where I kept thinking, “Oh snap, oh snap! Do not get seen or you’re done for by that Epic!” It really made for a very fun read.
The story as a whole was clever, as I would expect from Sanderson. He definitely took a genre and turned it on its head by making the superpowered people evil and making the common people the freedom fighters. A really unique direction! I think at moments, just like the characters, the story could have used a hair more depth, but it was still great nonetheless. As always, Sanderson tossed me curveballs, which were fun and kept me on the edge of my seat.
At first I was curious if I would like this book because I love superheroes and it would be tough to see them as the bad guys. As the story progressed, I came to really appreciate the idea that we don’t need be superheroes to do great things. Each character in the Reckoners was certainly gifted, but not necessarily with a superpower. Look at David, he has many gifts and talents, such as being resourceful and courageous. It made me think of my own Christian walk. God has given me dozens of talents and sure, they don’t involve flying or invulnerability, but I can do great things for God’s Kingdom with the talents that I am given. I don’t need to be Superman or Batman to accomplish great things. This book opens a door to anyone who wants to talk about how ordinary humans can do so many things. Often, those are the exact people that God uses for His Kingdom. Don’t ever say, “I’m not good enough” or “I don’t have enough talent to do X, Y, Z for God’s Kingdom,” because God has still set aside talents for you to do His work.
All in all, I really had fun reading this book. I think the premise is creative, the characters are a lot of fun, and the twists and turns are a-plenty in the book. If you love typical Sanderson, then you may be in for a surprise as the book operates very much like a YA novel and lacks the depth of some of his other works, but you will be right at home when you are caught off guard by a good plot twist. It isn’t a long read and the series is complete, so no waiting around if you decide you want to complete the series after finishing this book. Go ahead and move on to the next book, Firefight!
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+ Fairly clean content + Plenty of action + Fun characters + Unique plot + Plenty of twists
- Lack of depth in characters and plot at times
The Bottom Line
Steelheart is a fun and enjoyable read. It has some classic Sanderson plot twists and some interesting characters. Follows some typical themes common in YA novels, such as constant story movement. However, the characters do lack some depth. If you like the story, then go ahead and move on to the second book, Firefight.