Monday, December 30, 2013
Steelheart (Reckoners #1) by Brandon Sanderson
When the red satellite, Calamity, appeared in the sky it triggered superpowers in a few humans labeled, Epics, by the rest of the unchanged population. The Epics used their powers as tyrants oppressing people and taking whatever they wanted to ensure total control of cities. None of these Epics had redeeming qualities, but David Charleston's dad believed that there had to be a good Epic somewhere in the world. When the Epic, Steelheart, appeared at the bank where David and his dad were trying to survive the killing spree of the evil Epic, Deathpoint, David's dad thought the time had come when a good Epic would rise. When it looked like Deathpoint was going to kill Steelheart, David's dad thought he saved Steelheart's life. But his dad exposed a weakness in Steelheart who in anger turned and killed him setting off David's ten year vengeance and plotting to take down Steelheart. (This is all in the Prologue so don't worry, I'm not spoiling the plot.) No one fights Steelheart except the Reckoners who go from city-to-city fighting lesser Epics. David devises a way to become a member and convince them to go after the powerful Epic, Steelheart.
Sanderson flips the superhero on its head so that they are the villains oppressing people who rise up in order to have a better life that entails freedom of choice. The Epics care only about power and do not value human life. None are good. Steelheart is unusual in that he has more power and infrastructure in his city than other ruling Epics creating a somewhat peaceable authoritarian government. Er... that's an oxymoron, tyrants aren't peaceable but if you could choose your poison then you'd probably live in David's city than another. David struggles with bringing Steelheart down because he knows that life will be bad for people in the aftermath and he doesn't know if another tyrant will take Steelheart's place. Some would choose no conflict or change over oppression and he wonders if he should he push his desires on them.
This overarching theme of doing what he believes is the right thing when it involves killing others and pursuing an uncertain future is one he struggles with throughout the story. He debates the good and bad of what he is doing and how his actions can be like a terrorist if he's not careful. When he sets out to bomb a place he questions that he's the "good guy" and explores the notion of extremists becoming just as bad as terrorists when they no longer value human life. He struggles with the violence in a post-apocalyptic world and decides to work for the idea of a future peaceful and free state. Luckily the Reckoners feel the same way as David and take precautions with their plans to avoid killing innocent people. Either way the path they took is violent and will most likely end in their deaths. David has to decide if it is worth dying for this ideal.
Sanderson works familiar fantasy conventions and tropes and makes them his own. This story basically uses the idea of a superhero who is a villain and has a weakness like Superman being immobilized by kryptonite. The theme of hiding one's weakness out of fear is not unfamiliar but I don't recall a story where all superheroes are villains. The Reckoners spend most of their time trying to figure out Steelheart's weakness when the norm in this genre is to focus on superpowers and their abilities. The message regarding Epics being consumed by power and thus losing their humanity, spoke to me as an individual. If I let myself be afraid because of a weakness then I usually make bad choices and start putting myself above others. When I make something more important in life whether that is power, money, pride, it distorts my ability to make unselfish choices. I also lose my joy.
The author is also brilliant at connecting his world building elements with the magic system and explaining them thoroughly. Some might find the details boring but I think it gives the story a solid, plausible structure. I am not left with many questions when I read Sanderson's books. This is a clue that he knows his craft well. For instance, he explains how jewelry is no longer valuable economically in David's world because there are Epics who can create gems; however, gold still has trade value because no Epic can reproduce it and the Reckoners decide to take that to fund their operations when they stumble upon a treasure hoard. I appreciate how he creates his world incorporating politics, religion, economics, and social structures. He goes into great depth which makes the actions of characters more believable.
Ever read a book where there's a lightness and silliness to it that makes it obvious the author is having a hey-ho time? David uses cliches and metaphors and jokes about it all the time. You know darn well the author can write metaphors and he's just messing with the reader making it funny. He describes some motorcycles like ninja alligators which sounds like something one of my elementary students would come up with. Abraham, a French Canadian, pokes fun at the others who don't appreciate the beauty of the French language which even though its a bit stereotypical it is funny and I have met people like that. He's not obnoxious. Abraham is actually the spiritual character who spews wisdom to the others in occasional speeches that portrays the religious inclinations of some in David's futuristic world. Some might find him preachy but I thought him necessary to Sanderson's exhaustive world building. Cody is a Scottish chameleon and side-kick to David. Cody's voice and character are quite distinct and some of the adult humor had me snorting.
The euphemisms of "sparks" and "slontze" place it in the YA/middle grade genre and made me think of Gantos "cheese-us-crust" (I'm reading his Norvelt book.) We used to make up euphemisms all the time as kids or we'd get our mouths washed out with soap by an offended adult who heard us. The metaphors add humor and show the author playing with words. One awful metaphor David comes up with is describing a hand-blasting machine like an "unbalanced washing machine filled with a hundred epileptic monkeys." A few paragraphs later David uses a great metaphor to describe it but doesn't draw attention to the fact with the usually waving a white handkerchief and stating, "Hey... here's a metaphor I'm proud of!" He says "imagine holding a swarm of bees in your mouth, then spitting them out and trying to keep them pointed in a single direction by the sheer force of your breath and will." The author knows his metaphors. He's messing with the reader. The author also uses metaphors as a character trait in David that add humor. I'm not sure if kids will like this technique as well as I did. I enjoyed the author toying with his craft and reader.
The voice of David is funny and self-deprecating. It's also the voice of a young man who is trying to tell a girl he's interested in her and making an idiot out of himself in an endearing way. He's smart and nerdy defying the oftentimes good-looking, athletic stereotype. David was more authentic to me because of that and the comments he makes were laugh out loud at times. Not everyone is going to like this type of character. In one scene where he and Megan are going back and forth about weapons I laughed pretty hard. Megan is your stock female character however. She's gorgeous, aloof, athletic, and smart. She's his foil and it adds to the humor. Again, I felt like the author was having a hoot playing with stereotypes and then manipulating them in a terrific plot twist. This was an extremely entertaining book that makes a bunch of crazy eights with the plot. Grab your popcorn and settle in for a fun read.