Book Talk, Reviews

A Superhuman Subversion: Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

I’ve been meaning to read a book by Brandon Sanderson for a very long time, ever since I first heard praise for his masterful fiction. Steelheart is my very first introduction to Sanderson’s work, and I was not disappointed. The material not only met, but also exceeded, my expectations.

We’ll be discussing hooks and subversion today, but there are many literary techniques at work in Steelheart, and I will probably come back at a later date to talk about writing action scenes. For now, we’ll talk about the prologue. But first, a quick summary.

Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

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David knows firsthand that superheroes don’t exist in real life. Years ago, when humanity experienced the first wave of unnaturally and extraordinarily powerful humans called Epics, the most cruel of them all, Steelheart, solidified his reign as the city’s most feared ruler. Only the Reckoners fight back, which is why David longs to join their mission. Everything thinks that assassinating the world’s most powerful and feared Epic is impossible. But David knows something the Reckoners don’t. He has seen Steelheart bleed.

“I’ve seen Steelheart bleed.”

While the writing community is divided on the topic of prologues, this specific story makes effective use of its prologue. The first sixteen pages are a tight, fast-paced introduction to the story world, its characters, and the main character’s motivation and goal.

The very first line begins with a confession by the main character, David, “I’ve seen Steelheart bleed” (Sanderson 1). Immediately, the audience is aware of several factors at work in this story world. First, judging by the implication that Steelheart does not bleed, this line sets up the larger than life character of the title Epic. Even if a reader picked up the book without reading the synopsis, the name “Steelheart” invokes a sense of strength and immovability. Second, there was a point in time when a man who does not bleed did bleed. And third, the main character is the witness to a rare occurrence.

All of this information is enclosed in only four words, standing out by themselves in their own paragraph. This dramatic opening line sets the stage for a dramatic, impossible story. Sanderson’s hook is extremely effective.

Superhumans =/= Superheroes

The hook is not the only effective tool of note. The prologue, as well as the rest of the story for that matter, stands out in its ability to subvert the superhero genre too. The very basis of superhero fiction is in its name: superhero. In the world of Steelheart, some humans have been given superhuman abilities and are now called Epics. These Epics, however, are not to be confused with superheroes. While they take codenames and dress the part, Epics are forces to be feared in this world.

This change in dynamic does not go without commentary. Even as Epics start acting like villains instead of heroes, David’s father has faith that where villains appear, heroes will come also. This ever-present hope appears as early as his discussion with the mortgage man at the First Union Bank:

The mortgage man just continued to smile. He tapped the stack of papers on his desk. “The world is a much more dangerous place now, Mr. Charleston. The bank has decided against taking risks.” 

“Dangerous?” my father asked.

“Well, you know, the Epics…”

“But they aren’t dangerous,” my father said passionately. “The Epics are here to help.”

Not this again, I thought.

The mortgage man’s smile finally broke, as if he was taken aback by my father’s tone.

“Don’t you see?” my father said, leaning forward. “This isn’t a dangerous time. It’s a wonderful time!”

The mortgage man cocked his head. “Did your previous home get destroyed by an Epic?”

“Where there are villains, there will be heroes,” my father said. “Just wait. They will come” (Sanderson 3).

The three reactions to the appearance of Epics are illustrated succinctly by the mortgage man, David’s father, and David himself. From a rational business standpoint, the appearance of destructive beings, who have done nothing but wreak havoc since their debut, are cause to raise alarm. Yet, the mortgage man explains this reasoning in an overly formal and polite—and a somewhat smug—manner, which is displayed in his casual conversation (“Well, you know…”).

David’s father holds a much different view. In a way, he represents the reader’s assumption that the existence of superhumans equals the existence of superheroes. His passionate insistence that the heroes will come echoes the expectations of the audience and, counterintuitively, comes off as much more urgent than the mortgage man’s grim claims. David’s father even startles the mortgage man with his aggressively optimistic outlook.

This understandable mindset is almost immediately undercut by David’s quickly interjected opinion. During the conversation between his father and the mortgage man, David does not say a word, and he doesn’t even think much during the exchange. He does, however, display his opinion in internal monologue once when he thinks, “Not this again.” This is not the first time that David’s father has passionately insisted on “good” Epics. Reactive commentary on superhuman society captures three different views at the same time, all in one bit of engaging conversation.

The Superman Deception

Unfortunately, the answer to the question—Are Epics heroes?—is answered in some regard when Deathpoint enters the bank, not just to rob it but also to kill everyone inside. As is typical for a flashy villain, Deathpoint monologues as he uses his powers to kill the victims of the First Union Bank, leaving nothing but bones behind. And in true hero fashion, someone steps in to save the day:

A figure stood in the doorway to the street. He was backlit, little more than a silhouette because of the bright sunlight shining in behind him. An amazing, herculean, awe-inspiring silhouette. You’ve probably seen pictures of Steelheart, but let me tell you that pictures are completely inadequate…He didn’t wear a mask, like some of the early Epics did, but a magnificent silver cape fluttered out behind him. He didn’t need a mask. This man had no reason to hide…Steelheart rose into the air a few inches, cape flaring out…Arms like steel girders, legs like mountains, neck like a tree stump…He was majestic, with that jet-black hair, that square jaw, an impossible physique, and a frame of nearly seven feet (Sanderson 7-8).

Steelheart’s presence is reminiscent of Superman: a flowing cape, sturdy body, black hair, and no mask. His features stand out when compared to a regular human, but in terms of superhumans, his appearance is familiar, and this familiarity comes with a certain set of expectations. Steelheart even glides into the rooms with his arms spread out, the infamous crucifix pose. 

And of course, creating familiar expectations creates ample opportunity to subvert them. Instead of saving the people in the First Union Bank, Steelheart marks his territory.

Steelheart raised his other hand, lifting a finger. “I have claimed this city, little Epic. It is mine.” He paused. “And it is my right to dominate the people here, not yours” (Sanderson 8-9).

This one line takes every inference from Steelheart’s first appearance and turns it on its head. When David first sees the new Epic, he is amazed at how “majestic” and strong he is. Now, that majesty and strength has been revealed as a threat rather than a saving grace.

“And I will see him bleed again.”

From this point, the audience’s expectations have been decimated, showing that every view on Epics represented by the mortgage man, David’s father, and David himself was wrong, as were the audience expectations. And while there are several more key points to dissect in this prologue, the rest of the gems I will leave for you to discover.

Except, of course, for the final pronouncement, the voicing of David’s motivations and goal. Considering the events of the prologue and David’s role in them, his motivation for the rest of the story is obvious. The callback to the very first line, however, solidifies his determination: “I’ve seen Steelheart bleed. And I will see him bleed again” (Sanderson 16). The first and last lines of these sixteen pages wrap the prologue in a nice little bow, elegant in its symmetry, while simultaneously setting up the larger story.

The succinct style of writing shown in these first sixteen pages continues all the way to the epilogue, and each page is just as tight and smooth. If you are just as amazed as I am about the prologue of Steelheart, I highly recommend reading the book and checking out Brandon Sanderson’s other works!

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash