This is the first time I’ve read Sanderson; I’ve had a library copy of ‘Final Empire’ sitting on my shelves for a few weeks after an online recommendation but hadn’t got around to reading it. I don’t read a lot of fantasy, sticking mainly to crime and science fiction, but have been reading more lately. I’d read the Prologue to Steelheart somewhere a while back and it had grabbed me from the off so when Gollancz were asking for reviewers, I added my name to the pot, was selected, and the book landed a couple of days ago. I’m also not great at reviewing, finding myself dragged into a story so much that I forget to look at it from the outside, from another’s perspective. So I’ve started this review before opening the book and will try to keep it going as I read. So, let’s get going.
Okay, the Prologue. It is an excellent introduction in that it sets out the world of the story and raises all the questions that it will likely go on to explore, all in a tense sixteen pages. After the appearance of some strange force in the skies, ordinary people have been transformed into superheroes, or people with superhero-like powers; they are called Epics. These people are using their powers to enslave the rest of the population. David, a boy of eight, sees one such Epic, Steelheart, kill his father. But he, alone, also sees that the Epic can be wounded although unaware of what circumstances combined to permit this wounding. The story quest is laid out for us: David must discover Steelheart’s weakness and defeat him. I didn’t remember all of the Prologue from my previous reading, but it was soon obvious to me why I had been so keen on getting the whole book.
The book proper starts ten years after the prologue. In all but a few isolated outposts, the (US) government has capitulated to the Epics. From the off we’re in the world of noirish fiction — everywhere is dark and the people are clothed in Prohibition-era styled clothing — only with added sci-fi, such as anti-gravity. (There’s more than a hint of the movie, Dark City, in this novel.) David’s first task in his vengeance quest is to join the one group out to take down the Epics: the Reckoners. He brings himself to their attention with some style. Of course, he then has to convince them to let him join. And this is where his ten years dedicated to studying the Epics pays off.
The story is well told and expertly written. The ‘voice’ of the novel, that of the narrator, David, an eighteen year old forced to grow up alone in a new and terrifying world order, is a convincing mix of naivety and painful experience. The tropes and character types, even the story arc, will be familiar to anyone who has read any comic that has built on the genre-switching base that was Watchman. That is no criticism. Steelheart may not be a game-changer but it fits its niche very well indeed.
I’ll stop the review-along here as any more will contain spoilers. I was unsure, half way through, whether I’d bother with the rest of this series. There was too much that was familiar from other story worlds, ones that hadn’t kept me interested. But I have to say that there are enough twists at the end to make me want to read the next book in the series. And Sanderson is a very good writer. How it gets to one of the twists is a little unbelievable but, hell, the story is good enough to hold the suspension of disbelief. This book is definitely one to pick up and stick with through to the end and I certainly recommend it to any lover of urban, dark or superhero fantasy or anyone who just loves a well-told tale.