Book Review: FIREFIGHT

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Firefight is Book 2 in the Reckoners series. You can read my review of Reckoners Book 1, Steelheart, here.

FYI, there are some minor spoilers in the footnotes.

Notes on Diversity:
Compared to Steelheart, there was nowhere to go but up, really.

2002

Sanderson did go up. He could have kept Firefight populated by only white people1, but he branched out a little. The book is still defined by a masculine voice and masculine quest, and the team of Reckoners is still led and organized around male leaders (though women are present), but at least there are some prominent characters of color: Regalia and Newton, specifically.

But. Regalia, the main antagonist of the book, is a Black woman. That in itself is not a problem. Black women can be the bad guys, sure. But. In making Regalia an Epic–specifically an Epic with powers that manifest as omnipresence and her positioning as the owner/protector of Babilar, she is like a cross between the Magical Negro trope and the Black Boss Lady trope.2 That is to say that clearly some effort went into making her race visible, but I’m not sure Sanderson pulls it off. She seems like a collection of cliches to me, which is distasteful in itself. Readers of color might bounce especially hard off her. YMMV.

And Newton zips around, being horrible, for a long, long while before being revealed as Asian canonically. Given her assumed Epic name, and given that we get no actual description of her as a person–but elaborate descriptions of the havoc she wreaks–I assumed she was White until halfway through the book. That she was Asian seemed to be mostly an afterthought.


Review:
I read Firefight on the strength of the plotting in Steelheart. But Firefight lags. It’s a middle volume with middle volume weaknesses: it builds lore up, and the plot of this volume is mostly setup for the Grand Finale coming in the next book.

It’s not a terrible book. I devoured it in days. I would have devoured it quicker except that Sanderson indulged far too often in his gimmick of writing in David Charleston’s terrible metaphors. One or two absurdly bad metaphors I can handle, but not one per page. David Charleston, as a character, seemed to be on a one-man-mission to teach himself how to produce elegant metaphors on demand, going so far as to stop conversations with his elusive Epic girlfriend who is maybe but probably not evil but that everyone thinks is evil but he knows better in order to write down her better metaphors.

The book could have been trimmed. Reading it felt like a prelude, or perhaps, the first act of the final volume. The Reckoner series should have been a duology, maybe, not a trilogy. Too much setup, too much effort, for too little payoff. Too many characters and settings that we’ll likely not see again in the third volume.

There were interesting things in the book. The difference between how David expected Obliteration to be and how Obliteration actually was was well done–but again unless this plays some role in the last volume this could have been a separate short story.

In sum, those who loved Steelheart and are captivated by the Reckoners will probably love this slightly less. It’s a little meandering. If you’re looking for diversity, this isn’t and never was the place to look. I’ll check out Calamity because I’ve read the rest, so why not?

3 stars

————-SPOILERS BELOW————-

1think Nightweilder in Steelheart was Asian? He came and went so fast that honestly I don’t really remember, but I think so. Pretty sure everyone else was White, though. And despite Tia and Megan being in the mix it read like a sausage party. A straight sausage party.

2The fact that both of these tropes are typically reserved for ‘positive’ portrayals of racist caricatures actually fits with what Sanderson does with Regalia’s character over the course of the book. Regalia has an aborted redemption arc; she’s dying of cancer, and wants to hand her city over to a ‘trustworthy’ Epic–a one Jonathan Phaedrus, Prof, of the Reckoners. Which means her entire plot is about a Black woman handing her power over to a White man. Yes, she is dying. Yes, they were friends. BUT STILL. THAT IS WHAT THE BOOK HINGES ON. It…rubbed me the wrong way.


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Book Review: STEELHEART

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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.

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*Note to non-Southerners: not every Southerner is a sniper, folks.