Review: ‘Steelheart’ by Brandon Sanderson

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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. But Epics are no friend of man. With incredible gifts came the desire to rule. And to rule man you must crush his will.

Nobody fights the Epics … nobody but the Reckoners. A shadowy group of ordinary humans, they spend their lives studying Epics, finding their weaknesses, and then assassinating them.

And David wants in. He wants Steelheart — the Epic who is said to be invincible. The Epic who killed David’s father. For years, like the Reckoners, David’s been studying, and planning — and he has something they need. Not an object, but an experience.

He’s seen Steelheart bleed. And he wants revenge.

If Emmie Mears is my favourite new urban fantasy discovery for 2016, then Brandon Sanderson has to be my favourite general fantasy discovery. I listened to Steelheart on audiobook, and it gripped me to the point where I was sneakily listening to it while waiting for my son at school pick-up yesterday.

(It was the penultimate chapter! Don’t judge me!)

Things to love about Steelheart

David, the main character, is a nerd. But — because he’s spent most of his life in a post-apocalyptic, super villain (aka Epic) world — his nerdiness runs to gun manufacture and use, and to research and trivia about Epics. He manages to be focused on revenge without being broody and obnoxious (phew). And he has the most hamhandedly delightful inability to use metaphors that I’ve ever encountered in a character.

The rest of the Reckoners team is interesting and dynamic. There’s Prof, the gruff leader with a secret; Tia, the scientist and researcher; Abraham, the spiritualist and crack shot with a gun; and Cody, the ex-cop and comic relief. And, of course, Megan, the ice princess who David starts crushing on pretty much immediately.

The plot is full of planning, scheming and a bunch of action sequences that leave you gripped. Guns! Explosions! More guns! (I got a little tired of Sanderson’s gun obsession, truth be told.) A car chase, but with motorbikes and helicopters! BOOM! POW!

The villains are suitably evil, with non-traditional superpowers. Steelheart himself is a bit like Superman, if he swapped out the ice breath for the ability to transform any non-living material around him into, well, steel. A lot of the book is spent (between gunfights) trying to figure out what Steelheart’s kryptonite is. The revelation is one of the final plot twists. Which brings me to…

The plot twists. Sanderson is a master at these things. I thought this time that I was onto him. I saw a lot of the foreshadowing, but … I drew completely the wrong conclusions! Aaah! (Next time, Sanderson! Next time!)

Things I loved a little less about Steelheart

Some of the descriptions (such as of the guns, or of simple things like the fact Abraham had a soft French accent) got a tiny bit repetitive after a while. I think this might just be Sanderson’s style, because I’ve noticed the same thing in his other books.

I found David’s obsession with Megan, the prettiest girl in the room, a little … I don’t know, shallow? Her attitude towards him was almost always somewhere between chilly and frosty, with only occasional glimpses of warmth. By the end of the book that all made sense, but I never really understood why David kept persisting in trying to impress her. I had to keep reminding myself that he was 18 and not very experienced with girls … or other humans in general.

I think, in the end, I expected more from the book’s leading lady — someone like Vin or Sarene. Megan’s portrayal felt a little more “fan service-y”, where the fans are presumed to be teenage boys.

The counter to this is that her story arc takes a very interesting turn. I’m keen to see where it goes next.

Four-and-a-half stars

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Mini-review: ‘Rampant’ by Emmie Mears

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Gwen Maule is Edinburgh’s hero. She’s got a new job for a boss she actually likes, and by night as Shrike she singlehandedly keeps her city’s crime rate at an all time low. But now Rosamund Granger has escaped custody and is killing people across Scotland. Desperately trying to get ahead of the murders, Gwen discovers that Britannia are not as gone as she hoped — and their newest plan will soak the earth in blood.

This is a mini-review, since I only reviewed The Masked Songbird, the first book in this series, less than a week ago. If you’re looking for a new urban fantasy/superhero series, I can’t recommend this one highly enough — but you should definitely start there.

Here are additional things you can look forward to in Rampant, book two in the series:

  • It’s less of an origin story and gets more into the day-to-day of superhero life. Gwen’s superpowers continue to develop in delightful ways.
  • We get to see how Gwen, Taog and Magda cope with PTSD in a way that comes across as realistic without crippling any of them to the point where they hide in cupboards (hi, Katniss).
  • We don’t get to see any more of Angus, which I’m sure is a relief for everyone.
  • We learn much more about Britannia, the organisation of villains (aka crazy cult) that were the baddies in the first book. They are still the baddies in this one.
  • And, hoo boy, are they bad. The death toll is pretty high, you guys. And poor Gwen feels every death, which means we do too.

The only thing holding me back from giving this one five stars is that I found the end a little bit … anticlimactic? A lot of stuff happens, but Gwen is a little bit sidelined in the action, which was unsatisfying because I wanted her to lay out more smackdown than she got to. (It’s hard to be more specific than that without spoilers.)

Still, I really liked this book; I don’t know if Mears is planning on writing more books in this series, but I really hope she does!

Four stars


Review: ‘The Masked Songbird’ by Emmie Mears

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Edinburgh accountant Gwenllian Maule is surviving. She’s got a boyfriend, a rescued pet bird and a flatmate to share rent. Gwen’s biggest challenges: stretching her last twenty quid until payday and not antagonising her terrifying boss.

Then Gwen mistakenly drinks a mysterious beverage that gives her heightened senses, accelerated healing powers and astonishing strength. All of which come in handy the night she rescues her activist neighbour from a beat-down by political thugs.

Now Gwen must figure out what else the serum has done to her body, who else is interested and how her boss is involved. Finally—and most mysteriously—she must uncover how this whole debacle is connected to the looming referendum on Scottish independence.

Superpowers don’t make a superhero. Real strength isn’t something you’re born with — it’s something you build.

Emmie Mears is my favourite new urban fantasy discovery for 2016. I devoured her Ayala Storme series and then went looking for more. The Masked Songbird was her debut, but didn’t suffer for it — it has all the hallmarks of her writing, in that it’s action-packed and full of heart.

Despite the blurb, Gwen starts off in a pretty dark place. Yes, she has a boyfriend — but Angus is a manipulative prick one step away from being abusive. Yes, she has a job — but her terrifying boss is clearly a corporate psychopath (and, it turns out, a regular psychopath too) who has it out for her. Gwen’s life is very grey and grim.

That all changes when, in typical superhero-origin style, Gwen ingests an experimental serum hidden in a bottle of soft drink. But not in a “wow, I have powers; I rock now” way. More in a “what the hell is happening” way. She pays a pretty steep price for her powers (I won’t go into details, because spoilers), and gets her ass handed to her at least once because she gets in over her head. Strength does not automatically equal skill, after all.

And, even with her superpowers, it takes Gwen a while to realise she deserves better than what she has, especially with regards to Angus. She suffers from that sadly fairly common delusion that being with a scumbag is better than being single. (Hint: it’s not!) I’m pleased to say that she grows throughout the story and comes to realise she doesn’t need him.

I haven’t read very many true superhero books, though a lot of urban fantasy has the trappings of a superhero story. The Masked Songbird is pure superhero, down to the spandex costume and the crime-fighting. I loved it so much!

I loved watching Gwen’s friendship with her flatmate Magda turn from “friendly acquaintances” into “BFFs”. And Taog (pronounced “took”, apparently — Welsh names do my head in), the kindly and hot next door neighbour, is patient and committed to his beliefs. There is definite tension there, but Gwen resists it, not wanting to cheat on Angus. Hopefully their relationship will develop further in the sequel.

The overarching events that provide the backdrop and the external story relate to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 (when The Masked Songbird was originally released). The book is set in the lead-up to the vote, and explores the idea of an extremist pro-UK group, Britannia, trying to suppress the “leave” campaign while scaring the public into voting to stay. I did struggle with how truly evil the Britannia members were at times … but I suppose every superhero needs an evil super-villain. (And there’s no doubt that people have gotten violent over this sort of thing in the past … though not usually without religion being a factor too.)

Oh, I should add: the other thing I really enjoyed on a personal level was the evocative descriptions of Edinburgh. I went there on holiday in 2012 and it was so easy for me to picture the places I’d visited.

I’ve already bought the sequel and can’t wait to get stuck into it. I highly recommend this one.

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Because I read this on my Kindle, I printed out the cover to take a photo with. I didn’t realise until afterwards that it was a different cover. Aargh!

Four-and-a-half stars