Steelheart, the first book in Brandon Sanderson’s Reckoners trilogy, is a terrifically plotted but flat book. It is fast-paced and intricate in its action, but it ultimately lacks thematic focus or characterization. And I am a reader that gobbles up deep characterization.
Steelheart takes place in a world where every superhero is actually a supervillian—imagine if every single X-Man was Magneto and you’ve got the gist of it. When a mysterious celestial body named Calamity appears in the sky one night, a handful of people begin to develop monstrous god-like powers. Some of the regular humans who remain are the Faithful, those who believe that eventually a good and heroic Epic will appear who will protect the weak and vulnerable unchanged humans. The hopes of the Faithful have been as yet unfulfilled: every Epic is a force of oppression and destruction. One of those Epics, an invincible man who goes by Steelheart, killed David Charleston’s father. David Charleston spends the subsequent ten years gathering information on both the Epics and the sole rebellious force of Reckoners—normal humans who assassinate Epics—in a personal quest to avenge his father’s death by taking out Steelheart.
What follows is some of the best written battle scenes I’ve ever read. Seriously, Sanderson wrote the shit out of those. There are also a pair of forseeable but well executed plot twists which set up the next books in the series. It is a decidedly readable book, and I fully intend to read the next two installments in the series. But this is not a book which will stick with me. The book itself suffers from the same pitfalls as the Epics themselves: it is one-dimensional, it has little heart, and it drives itself forward on force and momentum alone. The protagonist, David Charleston, is the latest bland installment of the plucky, scrappy kid looking to make good. He’s enthusiastic and clever and swayed by pretty faces and…that’s really it. The Reckoners come across as characters even less developed than David. There’s the scowling but very hot Megan who serves as David’s love interest and foil. There’s the soft-spoken giant Abraham who fixes things. There’s Tia, the cola-drinking researcher. There’s Cody, the peculiar Southern sniper*. And there’s Jonathan Phaedrus, called Prof, who is the remote and enigmatic team leader.
The problem with this—besides the fact that each of these are stock characters I’ve seen before and will see again with very little added—is that what should be differentiating details for this characters ring hollow. For a particularly egregious example, Cody, the Southern sniper, consistently misuses the word “y’all” throughout the text. For those of you who did not grow up in the South (and a cursory Wikipedia search shows that, indeed, Brandon Sanderson is a product of elsewhere), “y’all” is a contraction of “you all.” We use y’all to refer to groups of people, to indicate a collective or plural ‘you’. No one uses y’all when addressing a single individual. Except that Cody does this over and over and over again in the text. And for me, who is fluent in y’all, it was confusing as hell—I kept trying to figure out who the other person in the scene was. Take also the fact that before Calamity Phaedrus was a fifth grade science teacher who, despite his nickname (Prof), has no graduate training. Except that it is nigh impossible these days to teach without a Masters’ degree. All of this is to say that Sanderson was much more concerned with the cool lasers and gadgets (and they are very cool) which moved his plot forward than spending time getting the details of his characters perfect—and when those details are less than perfect what I, as a reader, was left with were a bunch of characters so lacking in dimensionality or realness that it was difficult to get emotionally attached to them no matter how fun the ride was.
*Note to non-Southerners: not every Southerner is a sniper, folks.