Steelheart, published in 2013, is the first book in Brandon Sanderson’s The Reckoners trilogy of young adult fantasy books. It tells the story of a near-future United States, where the presence of an unidentified orbiting object has given random people superhero-like powers; these people have become known as Epics. The protagonist of the novel, David, seeks to join a resistance movement in order to exact revenge on the Epic that orphaned him.
This novel is one example of what Sanderson calls his ‘burger and fries novels’, as opposed to his ‘steak dinner’ novels. This categorisation makes sense; in contrast to his epic fantasy works, which feature extensive worldbuilding, sprawling plots, and multiple points of view, this novel features more limited worldbuilding (being set in the near-future), a more streamlined plot, and just one point of view character. Beyond these elements, however, the novel is unmistakably Sandersonian. The novel thus provides a Sandersonian reading experience without requiring as much of the reader as Sanderson’s other works do.
As in his other works, the writing in Steelheart is effective, efficient, and streamlined. It won’t wow the reader with its ability to turn a phrase beautifully, but it also won’t ever call attention to itself for doing so poorly. The writing describes everything with impressive clarity, without ever getting in the reader’s way. This is exactly what I ask for in the writing of novels in this genre.
The characters and their characterisations found in this book are of a similar quality. Each character is interesting and distinct, and you definitely get attached to them as the story progresses. That said, the novel is definitely not a character study, and the novel relies more on its action to hook the reader. Regarding the characters, I would also like to mention that the age of the protagonist is the only clear marker of the book’s YA categorisation; beyond that, the book reads much like Sanderson’s other works.
The plot and the pacing of the novel is where the book truly shines. The pacing is on point, and the action scenes are truly exhilirating. In this regard, the clear writing helps a lot, as you never have to pause in the middle of an action scene to attempt to figure out what exactly the author is attempting to describe. Moreover, the plot features twists that have become a hallmark of Sanderson’s writing: the twists are surprising, yet immediately seem inevitable considering everything that you have already read.
One of the most noteworthy things about this novel is that it is an absolute master class in how to write a prologue. The prologue manages to do three things simultaneously: it sets up the tone of the novel, shows the relevant backstory to the rest of the novel, and features a plot twist at the end that is emblematic of both Sanderson in general and this book in particular. In this way, the prologue is simultaneously a delight to read, as well as a perfect representation of what the rest of the book is going to be like; it thus perfectly tells the reader what to expect from the rest of the book.
Steelheart is an excellently written and wildly entertaining piece of fantastic fiction. While I was initially hesitant to pick this book up because of its superhero theme, I am very glad I decided to look past that, and I hope other readers will be able to look past it as well (in addition to looking past the YA categorisation, if that is a concern, as the book reads very similarly to Sanderson’s other works). As for whether I would recommend the book to others: because of the excellence of the Prologue (and how it functions as a microcosm of the entire book), I would urge everyone to read the Prologue; if you like it, you will definitely like the rest of the book as well. If you don’t, you will not have wasted much of your time.