(2013) Brandon Sanderson, Gollancz, £12.99, trdpbk, 386pp, ISBN 978-0-575-10399-3
This is the first volume of what is promised to be a series. It tells a good story and we are introduced to a world where many more such stories could easily be set. At the end we are told that 'the battle for mankind continues in Firefight'.
The story is set in contemporary times, maybe just a few years hence. Without warning, Calamity appeared in the skies. No one seems to be sure what Calamity is; some say that it is a comet which got caught by the Earth's gravitation field and now orbits it, others think that it is a satellite launched by a major power for some unknown reason. Whatever it is, it has had a strange effect.
About a year later a few people started to gain unusual powers; sometimes these powers are quite small, other times they are quite strong, and some have more than one power. The public have termed such people Epics and, like the superheroes of comics, they like to give themselves special names. Curveball, for example, has the sole power that any gun in his hands never runs out of ammunition; he has no need to reload, he just keeps firing. On the other hand, Steelheart (the subject of the book's title) can turn things into steel, can harness and direct energy with his hands, can fly, and is invulnerable.
Unlike the comic book heroes, there is a downside to being an Epic; the use of their powers robs them of any compassion or care for those around them and they think nothing of killing or destroying at the slightest whim. They say that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, and the Epics are the living proof of the saying. Refractionary, for example, did not like the behaviour of another driver so, being an illusionist, she caused the driver to see a bend that was not there and promptly drive straight into a house; the fact that the crash killed a number of people, including children, did not bother her - the driver 'deserved it'.
Faced with super-powerful beings, the forces of law and order soon find themselves defeated and much of the world descends into anarchy. In Chicago, Steelheart becomes the dominant figure and runs the city (which he has mostly turned into steel) as his fiefdom; no one can stand against his powers but, for his own convenience, he holds the city together and the police (and for that matter anyone with a job) now works for him. However, a small band of people have decided to strike back. They call themselves Reckoners and they know one thing - every Epic has a weakness. They also have a few items of interesting technology which, carefully used, can increase their chances of success. In the case of Curveball it is easy, he is as susceptible to a bullet as anyone else. In the case of Refractionary, whilst she can create the illusion that she is not there, she shows up if there is smoke (and she too is not bullet proof). Steelheart, though, is by far a much tougher nut to crack; he must have a weakness but what is it?
Back when all this started, eight-year old David was in a downtown bank with his father when Steelheart made one of his earliest appearances. In the fracas that followed David's father was amongst the many killed by Steelheart, but David spotted something very special; whilst bullets bounced of Steelheart as if they were motes of dust, the one fired by David's father grazed Steelheart's cheek and drew blood. Steelheart can be hurt, but what was so special about that shot?
Ten years later David finds a chance to join the Reckoners and go after the man who killed his father. It will not be easy, Steelheart's powers are immense and he is surrounded by other Epics, as well as the city's police force. And that is what this story is about - the bringing down of a powerful Epic. It seems more than likely that the series will prove to be more of the same - there are a whole load of powerful Epics out there! Furthermore, as each Epic has his/her own weaknesses, these can be used to add twists and turns to future stories.
As well as being a good adventure story, it has been thought through and has some nice ideas. We learn about the Epics, their many powers, how they use them, and their commensurate weaknesses. We see the world they have brought about but there are also a few surprises thrown in to keep us on our toes. How do you destroy someone who is invulnerable? Let alone someone with the power of reincarnation? Sometimes it can be relatively easy if you can arrange the circumstances; Fortuity can predict danger and if you shoot at him he will simply step to one side a fraction before the bullet arrives, but if you simultaneously fire several shots at and around him, there may not be a clear space for him to step to. The author has clearly thought a lot about superpowers and their practical uses and limitations.
The story cracks along well and maintains its pace and there are no bits where it seems to slow down and the text become mere padding. However, like many books these days, it does take more pages to tell the story than is really necessary and I would have preferred to see it a little shorter and sharper.
This cannot be described as a deep book, it is just an adventure - but it is an enjoyable adventure.
See also Ian's review of Steelheart the hardback.
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