Steelheart is bestselling fantasy author Brandon Sanderson’s entry into the superhero fiction genre. A big change from his usual fantastic fare, does Steelheart hit the mark?
The first thing the reader will notice about Steelheart is that it’s told in the first person. Sanderson’s books are usually narrated in third-person limited perspective with multiple characters – that is, using third person narration that focuses on one viewpoint character’s actions and interior monologue at a time. Other popular examples of this include Harry Potter and A Song of Ice and Fire.
First person narration is a very different beast. It gives a much more personal look into the story and the headspace of the viewpoint character. However, it can also resulted in a limited narrative, due to a general focus on one particular character. Multiple perspectives told in the first person can get confusing fast. First person narrative can also sometimes get a bit too up close and personal. We don’t want to hear every single thought that goes through a character’s stream of consciousness, after all.
For the most part, Sanderson makes first-person work. David Charleston isn’t a particularly reflective character (unless he’s thinking about how to kill Steelheart). This serves the story, an entertainingly fast-paced yarn that takes inspiration from everything from comicbooks to Mistborn. The prose doesn’t bog itself down with David’s every doubt, but instead feels like the reader is being told a story. This helped the exposition to feel a bit more fluid, while meaning the plot can jump quickly from action to character beat.
However, there is something lost in the jump to first-person. It really does feel like we’re missing out on the thoughts of some incredibly interesting characters. Prof and Megan in particular were two characters whose perspectives I would’ve enjoyed reading through. I realise this would’ve given away some crucial plot details, and hopefully we’ll get to see more of them in future books. Besides that, some scenes feel a bit limited due to first-person. Most of the time Sanderson strikes a good balance between what’s interesting for the reader and what’s relevant to David, but (SPOILERS) Cody’s capture of Conflux felt a lot more interesting than David and Megan’s escape from the situation (SPOILERS END). I’m not sure if there something that could’ve been done to improve this scene, but it still jars.
The book, more than any of Sanderson’s other work, is straight up action. Sanderson proved in Mistborn that he can write great fight scenes, and Steelheart’s focus at any moment is either an action sequence or preparing for one. This plays to Sanderson’s strengths as a writer, even though it makes Steelheart feel a bit of a lighter read compared to Stormlight Archive or Mistborn. The characters and world don’t feel quite as deep.
This isn’t to say that Steelheart’s focus is a bad thing, however. The action sequences are tense and described excellently, and the reader is constantly anticipating the next fight. The climactic battle at the end was particularly good, providing badass combat and some surprising twists. More than any other Sanderson book I’ve read, Steelheart feels like it could be adapted into a movie. It’s short, consistently entertaining and manages to read well as a standalone book or the first of a trilogy. The fight scenes are cinematic and the character beats are brief but effective. The characters are very witty and likable, but not extremely deep. All in all, prime Hollywood material.
- I thought it was pretty cool Sanderson didn’t just go for straight superhero fiction with Steelheart. Making all the superheroes evil was a neat twist on the concept, as was having nearly all the protagonists be normal humans.
- Sanderson’s curses in The Reckoners aren’t great. Generally I’m fine with fake-cursing if it’s in a fantasy setting, but it doesn’t work as well on an Earth that’s (presumably) only twenty-to-thirty years ahead of ours.
- Some of the superhero creator shout-outs were a nice touch, if a bit much. Not every street had to be named after one.
Steelheart is a snappily-paced novel with an interesting take on superhero fiction. It won’t change your life, but it’s a fun, action-packed read that I’d recommend.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10, it’s quite good.
(Note: After having finished the review, I learnt that Steelheart is also a Young Adult-orientated novel, which explains some of the issues I had with theme and depth. I’m going to keep my score looking at it from a general perspective, but it’s a solid 8.5 out of ten 10 YA novel.)