Sometimes I think Sanderson must write books while mortal men sleep. He seems to be able to churn them out at a steady pace and consistent quality — actually that’s not true, they just keep getting better. Sanderson’s craft has improved by large jumps with each book he has released and Steelheart is part of the culmination of that improved quality.
It starts with a very comic book conceit: a light appears in the sky and suddenly people start developing super powers. The wrinkle is that the only people who get super powers are the people who are evil — the ones who would not use their powers for good.
The world simultaneously goes through a terrifying apocalypse and a technological jump at the same time. Technology improves because it is based on super powers, but super villains rule over everything, murdering and controlling people at every whim.
Enter our main character who thinks he has the secret to removing the most dangerous villain of them all.
Now stir in the usual Sanderson series of nested revelations and surprises with the fascinating and imaginative uses of the magic system that he lays out and you have a wonderful story that will leave you breathless with excitement, and weeping in pain right along with the characters.
Perhaps Sanderson’s biggest flaw as a writer is that he doesn’t do humor very well. Most of his jokes fall flat or sound like he’s trying too hard. Steelheart shows a maturity in that area as well providing some actual humor and running gags that served to lighten the darkness that the story could have easily slid into. The use of metaphors is simultaneously hilarious and gives the main character a degree of sympathy from anybody who’s tried to craft a clever metaphor.
Sanderson is particularly skilled at telling really dark stories in ways that feel like they are not so bad. He polishes some of the grit off, perhaps. Mistborn is not only thematically dark but takes place in a world that is almost always dark but comes across as an epic fantasy. Way of Kings deals with some of the heaviest themes that Sanderson has addressed yet, delving into the human psyche and addressing issues of slavery and gender relations while never quite feeling like it has gone too far. Steelheart shows a post-apocalyptic world and makes it kind of fun.
That isn’t to say that Sanderson shies away from showing us the bad and evil parts of his world. On the contrary it’s all there to see. It just doesn’t have the dark and gritty feel that some stories have. I know some of it is the placement of humor in unlikely places to break up the bleakness and part of it his prose style which just doesn’t lean itself to the gruesome and gritty realism that some authors use. And part of it is the story he is telling, because although he drags his characters through the muck and sewage right up until the end his books are still about triumph and good, which is kind of an old theme for fantasy but one that is nevertheless refreshing for being one of the few that still does it.
Steelheart is an excellent novel for people of just about any age. There are even a few surprises in there.