Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It’s a common maxim and warning against giving anyone too much power, that normal people cannot really be trusted to have that authority because of its influence on us. This was seen in the infamous/famous Stanford Prison Experiment and more recently with the revelations about the NSA and their varied abuses of their power and authority from spying on Congressmembers critical of them during the Cold War to their more recent spying on American people (including their own loved ones in breaches of Constitutional protections). It’s this idea that forms, at least in part, the concept for Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart and one, IMO, I think he eventually ends up betraying.
As a warning, this review is going to have some spoilers so if you’re interested in reading this book free from any prior knowledge, you may want to hold off on continuing. Otherwise, here we go.
In Steelheart the world is no longer what it was. Ten years prior to the events of the book a new star appeared in the sky, red in color and named Calamity, which coincided with the rise of the Epics, formerly normal men and women changed by some unknown means or force and granted incredible and varied powers.
And each and every one of them evil.
There are no good superheroes in this world, only villains as the Epics use their powers to conquer, to kill, and to destroy. Ten years after the appearance of Calamity the world has been changed. Whole cities no longer exist; people have been killed in the millions. Chaos rules over much of Earth and few are the places with even an illusion of stability, one of which is Newcago, formerly Chicago, the demesne of one of the most powerful Epics in all of North America and the Fractured States (get it, no longer the “United” States?): Steelheart who, among many of his powers, is invulnerable. Bullets, knives, explosions don’t hurt him, electricity has no effect, and while I didn’t read anything about poison gas or psychic attacks I assume those wouldn’t work either.
You see, each Epic has a flaw, some sort of weakness that, temporarily, makes it so that their powers don’t work. Some Epics need to eat, or need to not eat, certain foods to keep their powers going. Others will have their powers stop working if they hear a certain noise or see a particular pattern. Others can only have their powers defeated by a particular situation, such as one Epic who was mentioned who could only be killed if they were attacked by a person who was exactly a certain age or another who could only be shot if five people were shooting at them at the same time. Now, this isn’t to say that all Epics are invulnerable, many are susceptible to the same thing that would kill any normal person, but many of the most powerful Epics have some way of cheating death, either invulnerability, the ability to reincarnate, or some way of healing themselves in a fantastic way that makes them extremely difficult to kill while their powers are active.
Now, with the fall of the pre-Calamity world, few people fight against the Epics. Most of the governments of the world, those that still exist at any rate, have passed laws that basically say that Epics are a force of nature and that they can do whatever they want; what good would it do to fight someone like Steelheart when doing so would just cause more destruction, suffering, and death with no possibility of stopping him? The only people who are known to fight against the Epics are a shadowy group called the Reckoners, humans who study Epics, discover their weakness, and then use it to kill them. They’re fairly successful too, building a reputation for themselves, and that’s why David, the main character, wants to join them.
You see, he has knowledge that no one else possesses. He has seen Steelheart bleed, one day ten years ago, just before Steelheart killed his father and took over Chicago. David wants revenge for the death of his father and for the thousands that Steelheart has killed but he needs the Reckoners’ help to get that revenge.
So it is with this set up that Steelheart takes place, with David, who studies Epics fanatically, first attempting to get the Reckoners attention, then joining them, and finally seeing their plans through to draw Steelheart out into the open and kill him.
There are more than a few problems with this book.
First, the book itself is a bit repetitive in that we are given the same details multiple times. Among the many lesser Epics that Steelheart allows to live in his kingdom, he has three lieutenants: Nightwielder, Conflux, and [Firesomething]. There are other details in the beginning of the book that are repeated frequently, that Nightwielder has blocked out the sun so there is perpetual darkness, that the Diggers (an unseen group of humans given the ability to burrow through things including solid steel) carved out the Undercity and went crazy. I’m not certain if Sanderson thought we might forget or if he was filling up word count but it felt awkward and it bothered me after a while.
There are also a couple of flaws with the Epics themselves, some pretty major ones that make me question the strength of the plot. We learn over the course of the book that Nightwielder has the ability to project darkness and manipulate shadows as well as possessing the ability to make himself incorporeal and fly. Pretty spooky stuff. The Reckoners find out that his weakness is UV light, that being exposed to UV light renders his powers inert and it’s theorized that is the reason why Nightwielder has shrouded the city in darkness so that the sun’s natural UV light cannot get to him and thus make him normal half the day. This makes sense until later in the book when David starts using a flashlight with a UV bulb to cancel out the shadows that Nightwielder makes to attack him, causing them to more or less evaporate when he flashes the light on them. So, if Nightwielder’s abilities can be cancelled out by shining a UV light on them, rather than shining the light on him directly, then how can the shroud of perpetual night continue to exist once the sun comes up? If UV light cancels out all of his abilities, then he should never be able to block out the sun.
Secondly, we learn that central premise of the book, that ultimate power corrupts ultimately, doesn’t really apply here in multiple ways. We learn part way through the plot that there are a type of Epics called Gifters who can grant normal human beings their powers. Conflux can do it, allowing the members of Enforcement, Steelheart’s police force and army, to power their energy weapons (Conflux can charge any sort of battery). The Diggers were similarly gifted by another Epic (whose name was only mentioned once and escapes me) so that they could create the Undercity, only they went mad for some reason (and there’s no mention in the book that members of Enforcement similarly went crazy, despite the fact that it was said, in regard to the Diggers, that normal people couldn’t handle being given super powers). We also learn that the one of the Reckoners, Professor, is an Epic and a Gifter, whose abilities he gives to the Reckoners, disguised as super technology. So, if ultimate power corrupts ultimately, then why did the Diggers go crazy and Enforcement and the Reckoners don’t?
Continuing with this violation of the premise is the fact that we learn that the Epics become more and more corrupt/evil/antagonistic with the use of their power and that this effect is lessened as they use their power less and less. For instance, Professor, who is normally a calm, mild individual, becomes more and more of an angry asshole as he uses his abilities. He remains not evil by gifting his powers to the Reckoners and by not using them himself. Same thing goes for Conflux, who we learn is actually a slave of Steelheart’s. He seems like a pretty nice and average sort of person, that the only person he has harmed with his ability was his wife when he, at least according to his story, accidentally electrified their metal counter at home as he was trying to fix a toaster (who has an all metal counter in their house?). But since gifting is part of their power package, and using power is what makes them evil, wouldn’t this be a violation of that set up that power use = EVIL-MAD WITH POWER? I mean, they’re still using a power and other powers by extension…to me this seems to lack a certain internal consistency.
This detail, that it’s the powers that makes someone evil not the individual themselves, is also problematic for me because the idea of the maxim that ultimate power corrupts ultimately is a statement on human nature, not on power in and of itself. For instance, one thing that people like to say about bad police officers who abuse their power is that they got that way because they have that authority, but if it were the case why is it that bad cops are a minority when compared to the number of good and just average cops? Why isn’t the SCotUS the most corrupt bunch in the land, as they cannot ever be removed from office and can dictate to the country what is and is not legal? Why weren’t all of the guards in the Stanford Prison Experiment equally abusive toward the prisoners? Human nature plays a large part in that maxim which is why it’s just a saying and not a truth; there are plenty of people who have a great amount of authority/power who do not become corrupt because of who they are.
With the way it is written, no matter what kind of person the individual was before they were powered, after Calamity they only had one outcome: becoming a villain. Prof gets around this by gaming the system and, IMO, because of a flaw in the logic of the powers. Human nature doesn’t really matter, who the person is/was doesn’t matter because the powers dictate that you will become evil simply by having them. To me this isn’t a story of ultimate power corrupting ultimately in the sense that a person allows their authority to overcome their sense of self, this is really a story about people who, due to some sort of outside influence, are changed from what they were on a fundamental level in a way that they have no control over. It’s not like they started out as their normal selves, just with powers, and then ultimately lost themselves along the way. No, the way it’s put forward is that people woke up with super power and just went crazy pretty much immediately. To me, this doesn’t fit with the maxim.
The characters also felt particularly flat in this. We get hints that there is depth behind them, more reasons for what they do other than “Epics are bad, we kill them”, but we’re never clued in. We get a glimpse of Prof’s back story in that he was a Fifth Grade science teacher whose school was destroyed while it was in session but we don’t know if he was the one that destroyed it, we don’t know how he eventually learned to stay good, or anything else. We know even less about the other Reckoners, especially how Megan, who ultimately turns out to be one of Steelheart’s lieutenants, joined the group since it seemed to imply that she’d been with them for some time. David is particularly one dimensional in that he knows guns and his sole-focus in life has been studying epics to get revenge for his father’s death.
Overall, despite these flaws, while I wouldn’t say that this book is great, it is at least entertaining. Sanderson does have some cool ideas for varied powers (I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn he’d actually created and mapped out a classification system like what Tia and David came up with) and he hints at a lot of other things that have gone on in the world that I’d like to know more about (some of the other Epics he mentions have cool names that make me want to learn about their powers). Newcago is filled with some interesting details and is a cool setting. While it isn’t addressed in this book, the mystery of Calamity and its relation, if any, to the Epics is also plot that’s dangling out their like meat on a hook. Fight scenes were well done and the pacing was so-so, it bogged at times but in others it flowed well enough.
And, something I can’t say for a lot of books that are part of a series lately, Steelheart is a complete story arc despite being part of a larger series. I can’t tell you how much weight that carries with me because I am so very, VERY tired of Book One not actually being a complete story and is instead the first episode in what is more ore less a serial with each “episode” being novel length. Those types of books/series always make me feel like I’ve been sold a false bill of goods.
Would I be interested in reading the next book put out by Sanderson in this world? I’d consider it but only if I had a chance to read a sample of it first to see if it suffered from the same flaws. Definitely glad I purchased this one on Kindle so I paid less and don’t have to worry about selling it to a bookstore to get it out of my house because it’s not one I’d hold on to for more than a single reading.