Thursday, June 5, 2014

Steelheart: Helping the Heroes Along

Have you ever finished a really satisfying book and thought, “How did I not know about this author before?” Brandon Sanderson's YA hit Steelheart is that kind of book. I promptly followed it up with Mistborn: The Alloy of Law, then Warbreaker, then his Mistborn trilogy (in which I am currently immersed).

Brandon Sanderson is a teacher at Brigham Young University who also writes prolifically: he has continued Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series while managing to write seventeen novels, a number of shorter works, and a graphic novel. He’s been nominated for and/or won major literary awards every year since 2005, and he co-hosts an award-winning podcast. I get tired just reading his bio. He probably wrote a novella while I typed this paragraph. 

Even more impressively, his track record would suggest that this imaginary novella I just had him write is very good. I suspect I will eventually read everything he has written. His stories are innovative, thought-provoking, and grounded in a moral universe that fits in well with my Christian worldview.

I will let a combo from several of the official blurbs for Steelheart give you an overview of the plot before I move on to some of the underlying themes in the story.
There are no heroes. 
Ten years ago, Calamity came. It was a burst in the sky that gave ordinary men and women extraordinary powers. The awed public started calling them Epics.Every single person who manifested powers—we call them Epics—turned out to be evil. 
Here, in the city once known as Chicago, an extraordinarily powerful Epic declared himself Emperor. Steelheart has the strength of ten men and can control the elements. It is said no bullet can harm him, no sword can split his skin, no explosion can burn him. He is invincible. 
It has been ten years. We live our lives as best we can. Nobody fights back . . . nobody but the Reckoners. A shadowy group of ordinary humans who spend their lives studying powerful Epics, finding their weaknesses, then assassinating them. 
My name is David Charleston. I'm not one of the Reckoners, but I intend to join them. I have something they need. Something precious, something incredible. Not an object, but an experience. I know his secret. 
I've seen Steelheart bleed.
After Calamity showed up, the freshly empowered people became remarkably vicious and cold. Did the powers make them evil? Did the powers magnify an evil that already simmered within? Would everybody have become evil if they had been given that much power? John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton is credited with saying, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” If that’s true, then there are no genuinely great men; there are only men with power. When asked where he got the idea for Steelheart, Sanderson acknowledged how unsettling this possibility is:
“Honestly, I want to think I’d be a hero, but as I’ve mentioned, the reason I wrote Steelheart was because of a moment where I had intense anger toward someone else. And that moment of me imagining myself destroying someone else because of a minor annoyance is part of why I wrote this book. I was frightened of myself. I’d like to think that I’d be a hero. I’m worried that I wouldn’t be.”   
I like Sanderson's counter-cultural look into his own heart. When was the last time we thought that maybe we ought to be frightened of ourselves? Usually, we hear that we are perfect just the way we are. Just follow our arrow wherever it points, right? Steelheart challenges that notion. What if we are more flawed then we know? What if the last thing we need to be given is more power? What if the monster that lurks within us exceeds our worst nightmares? Steelheart does not leave us stuck with that grim message. The heart of the story is about the war inside all of us between who we ought to be vs. who we are, Epic or not.

At one point, David realizes his father is going to fight against Epic and fatal odds. He can’t just cower and wait for the heroes. He has to do something. “Sometimes, son,” his father murmurs, “you have to help the heroes along.” Though his father fails in the moment, he gives David a glimpse into what it will take for a hero to rise: goodness, honor, perseverance, and self-sacrifice. By the end of the story, David has done more than learn this lesson for himself: he has helped at least one Epic to resist Calamity’s power and fight for good after all.

The evil that lurks within us does not have to have the final word on who we are or what we will become.  We may be more inclined toward evil then we know - but we also have a greater potential for good than we realize. That's a story worth telling again and again.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this review. I'm glad to hear Sanderson is so good because I'm currently on book 9 of the Wheel of Time and was hoping the last 3 (11-14) that he wrote will be as good. This helps alleviate some fears! Thanks, as always, for the great insights as well.