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Literature / Steelheart

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Beware the Superman.

"I've seen Steelheart bleed. And I will see him bleed again."

First book in The Reckoners Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson, Steelheart takes place in a world of supers called Epics. Epics have extraordinary and wondrous abilities, but every single one is, without exception, an evil sociopath who sees nothing wrong with dealing death for even the most minor of offenses.

Chicago is ruled by one of the worst Epics of them all, a tyrant who calls himself Steelheart. Imagine Superman as an Evil Overlord: he can fly, he is superhumanly strong, he shoots energy beams, he appears to be completely invulnerable, and he is a ruthless dictator who commits mass murder without qualm or hesitation.

The only people who dare to fight back, anywhere, are a band of freedom fighters called the Reckoners. They study Epics, try to learn the weakness each one has, and assassinate them whenever possible.

The protagonist, David, is an 18-year-old who has lived under Steelheart's tyranny since the beginning. For ten years, since the day Steelheart murdered his father, he has studied Epics, plotted revenge, and searched for a way to join up with the Reckoners. Because David, alone out of all the people who were there, survived the incident, and was a witness to the only time that Steelheart showed that he also has a weakness. David has seen Steelheart bleed.

A short story, Mitosis (taking place between Steelheart and Firefight) is available for digital download from Sanderson's website, and 20th Century Fox recently bought the film rights, with John Levy and Carter Blanchard attached to the project.

This book contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Accidental Murder: Conflux reveals to the Reckoners that he accidentally killed his wife with his electricity powers when he first received them when Calamity came, while microwaving dinner.
  • Always a Bigger Fish: Steelheart opens with an Epic named Deathpoint robbing a bank and generally wreaking havoc. What with his ability to kill people by pointing at them, he seems an extremely formidable guy. Then Steelheart (who is basically an evil version of Superman, except maybe even more powerful) shows up, and suddenly Deathpoint doesn't look so scary after all...
  • Antagonist Title: The book is mostly about figuring out and implementing a plan to kill the titular Steelheart.
  • Awesomeness by Analysis: David is a very observant young man, which makes him useful to the Reckoners.
  • BFG: Lots. The Gauss gun and Abraham's 'Manchester 451' are two standout examples.
  • Black Box: It's somehow possible to create new weaponry or technology through researching the principles on which Epic powers work, then applying them to gadgets such as cell phone networks, motorcycles, or BFGs. However, this does not necessarily mean that the people researching the principles and reapplying them actually understand in any way how they work, or even if that's physically possible.
  • Bottomless Magazines: Curveball, one of the Epics, never runs out of bullets when he uses a handgun. This was done deliberately as a shout-out to action movies.
    • "Electron-compressed" magazines, which seem to have this effect, are also part. Though really, it's not so much 'bottomless' as 'improbably extended'.
  • Brick Joke: In Chapter 9, before David, Megan, and Cody get David's notes from his house, Megan asks if their mobiles are on silent. Cody replies of course, he's not an amateur. Next chapter, what gave Refractionary away? Her mobile not being on silent.
  • But for Me, It Was Tuesday: Averted. David is shocked when Steelheart instantly recognizes him ten years later, after never having spoken to him, nor even significantly interacted with him in the few moments they were in the same room. It's likely Steelheart's memories of that day were as sharp as David's, since that day was the only time Steelheart was ever injured. Though Steelheart makes a comment which suggests he might have Eidetic Memory.
  • Cape Busters: The plot revolves around the Reckoners, who are trying to defeat the evil superhumans.
  • Casting a Shadow: Half of Nightwielder's powers. He blocks out all natural light (except that of Calamity) 24/7 throughout Newcago, and can use solid shadows as weapons to kill with.
  • Co-Dragons: Nightwielder, Conflux, and Firefight are Steelheart's Dragons. Well, Nightwielder and Firefight are. Conflux is actually a captive, little better than a slave forced to use his energy-boosting powers to fuel the city. And not only is Firefight just an illusion cast by an illusionist Epic, but the illusionist happens to a Double Reverse Quadruple Agent and the hero's love interest.
  • Converse with the Unconscious: About midway through the book, David does this to Megan, who is critically injured during a mission. She doesn't wake up, but it turns out that his words were secretly recorded and she listens to them later on.
  • Cue the Sun: Justified. When David kills Nightwielder, it allows the sun to finally rise.
  • Defeating the Undefeatable: Steelheart is reputed to be one of the most powerful Epics in North America. Many others have challenged him for control of Newcago, and he has defeated and killed each one. Even the Reckoners, who make it their business to kill supposedly invincible High Epics, initially believe that he is unbeatable. David's goal in life is to kill him, and he eventually succeeds.
  • Deliberate Under-Performance: David put a lot of effort into maintaining perfectly average academic performance at the Factory because high-performing students were transferred to elite schools on the surface and trained to be members of Steelheart's bureaucracy, while low-performing students were pulled out of school and put to work full-time.
  • Depower: This is the result of a Transference Epic taking his or her powers back after giving them to someone. Conflux does this to all of the power he was giving out in Newcago, effectively shutting down most of the city and the Enforcement.
  • Devil, but No God: A variant. Every Epic is evil to some extent, effectively creating a non-religious variant of this trope.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Part of the Epic attitude is that being mildly inconvenienced should be responded to by killing the person responsible. Refractiony is mentioned as having sent a car with kids in it crashing into someone's house as retribution for being cut off in traffic, and Megan clearly intends to shoot David for spilling steel dust on her until she remembers herself.
  • Dissimile: David is painfully bad with analogies, and well aware of it.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: Fortuity's weakness. He's normally impossible to surprise thanks to his extremely powerful precognitive abilities, but if he's sexually attracted to a person it scrambles his precognition.
  • Divided States of America: America is known as the "Fractured States" by the time the story starts up, on account of Epics being able to take and set up their own fiefdoms wherever they see fit.
  • The Dreaded: Steelheart has a PR team to turn him into this, as he can only be harmed by someone who isn't afraid of him.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: Deathpoint can kill people by pointing at them. Even he admits the name isn't that creative, but hey, it gets the idea across.
  • Expy: Steelheart to Superman, intentionally. He has the cape, the general appearance, the Lantern Jaw of Justice, the Flying Brick powerset. The only major difference is that Steelheart trades in Supes's secondary powers for energy blasts and the ability to transform objects to solid steel. Oh, and Steelheart is evil.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Deathpoint is a rather cheery fellow, chatting and bantering with the customers and staff at the bank he's robbing, while casually talking about the fact that he is there to rob it and disintegrating anyone who strikes his fancy.
  • First Injury Reaction: In the prologue, Steelheart is grazed by a bullet shot by David's father, after a hail of bullets failed to affect him moments earlier. He wipes the wound and is visibly astounded to see blood on his hand. It's enough for Steelheart to deem David's father important enough to kill with his own gun, and he sets to destroying the bank they're in within the span of a few seconds to ensure that no witnesses to his weakness will be left alive.
  • Full-Circle Revolution: Prof is well aware of this trope, which is why he flat-out refuses to even consider the idea of taking over if they defeat Steelheart. Also, he's an Epic fighting his own megalomania, and said megalomania happens to be transferable to people he gives his powers if he gives too much to one person.
  • Flying Brick: Steelheart himself; his powers include flight, invulnerability, Super-Strength, Elemental Powers, and the ability to transform nonliving material into solid steel.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Cody mentions that the other members of his police force in Nashville became even worse when they stayed on while he left. This foreshadows the fact that Epic powers, even when Gifted, have a high probability of causing the same arrogant amorality in other people when used by them instead, much like how David nearly believes that the Reckoners should take over the infrastructure of Newcago for what would surely be a Full-Circle Revolution.
    • Megan can't use any of the technologies of the Reckoners, which, combined with Conflux's reveal of the fact that Epics can't be Gifted powers by Transference Epics, foreshadows that she is in fact an Epic herself.
    • Fortuity can use his power to detect and evade danger, and David mentions that he's rumored to have dodged machine-gun fire. Which is humanly impossible. Well, assuming he has regular human reflexes.
    • When David is cornered by Steelheart's minions, Prof urges him to try using his tensor to escape, despite David telling him that the device is obviously broken. David does try it, and for a moment, it feels almost as though it might work. That's because the tensor glove is just a glove, and the ability to dissolve matter is an Epic power Prof gifts to his teammates. The power didn't work because David didn't believe that it would.
  • Giving Someone the Pointer Finger: Weaponized by Deathpoint, with his eponymous power.
  • Guns Akimbo: How Megan kills Fortuity, by "Checkmating" him between a rifle in one hand and a handgun in the other. Repeated by David when killing Nightwielder, holding a UV flashlight-equipped, stripped rifle in one hand and his father's borrowed gun in the other. The similarity in the kills is what lets Megan remember who he is.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Steelheart likes to use people's own guns to kill them, but only bothers if they've impressed or annoyed him personally in some way. This comes back to bite him, when David rigs his own gun to activate explosives when Steelheart pulls the trigger; Steelheart is the only one left no longer afraid of himself, so he's the only one who can hurt him.
  • I'm Not Afraid of You: Steelheart can only be harmed by someone who does not fear him. Unfortunately, thanks to his campaign of terror and propaganda, there's only one person left in the world who fits that description.
  • Intangible Man: The other half of Nightwielder's powers. Sunlight forces him to solidify, but other than that no physical attack can touch him.
  • Jumped at the Call: Taken one step further, as David actually hunted down the call and pestered the Reckoners into letting him join the gang.
  • Like a God to Me: This is how David felt about the Reckoners before he joined them.
    • Upon recognizing Prof as the founder of the Reckoners, an awestruck David reflects that the man is "a god among freedom fighters and assassins alike".
    • After spending some time with the team and getting to know them as individuals, David finds it strange to realize that "[his] gods were regular humans who squabbled, laughed, [and] got on one another's nerves".
  • Magic Feather: The Tensors, the Reckoner Jackets, and the Harmsway. All of these "devices" are simply nonfunctional electronics, used to hide the fact that the matter disintegration, energy shields, and healing abilities are powers that Prof, a transference Epic, shares with the Reckoners.
  • Magic Is Evil: There is not a single case where an Epic is heroic. It is implied that this is literal. While Gifters can give out their powers in small doses safely, they experience the effects when they use the powers themselves. Keeping from using Epic powers for a time allows the Epic to regain their original personalities, which are not always evil. It is unclear why this happens, but the effect is instantaneous, and lasts for some time depending on how the powers are used.
  • Magic-Powered Pseudoscience:
    • One of the Reckoner's greatest assets are a handful of mysterious gadgets apparently based on Epic powers. Specifically, we have the tensors, glove-like objects which can destroy non-living matter; the jackets, which project a sort of force-field to protect their wearers, and the harmsway, which grants you a temporary Healing Factor. Turns out the devices don't actually do anything. Prof is an Epic, and he manages to control his power and maintain his sanity by giving bits of it to the rest of the team.
    • It's also suggested in the story that all devices created from Epic powers work this way.
  • The Man Behind the Curtain:
    • Zigzagged with Firefight. One of Steelheart's Dragons is a powerful fire Epic who actually doesn't exist, being an elaborate hoax. The actual Firefight is an illusionist who creates the image of the fire Epic. However, as the climax shows, an illusionist is just as dangerous -possibility more so- than a fire wielder, just in a different way.
    • Played straight with Conflux, who despite his reputation as the mysterious and feared head of Steelheart's enforcers, is actually a mild-mannered little man who is basically Steelheart's slave/living battery.
  • Meaningful Rename:
    • Every Epic gets one. Most of them seen don't even go by their given name at all, nor is it stated.
    • In addition, the fact that Edmund Sense prefers his birth name to his Epic name (Conflux) is the first hint that he's one of the very few (three so far) Epics to retain some degree of humanity.
  • The Mole: The complexity of the plan is not the only reason the Reckoners find it much harder than previous adventures. Nobody would suspect Megan.
  • Muggle Power: Mostly subverted. Humans are treated as second-class citizens of the world, and the Capitulation Act of the US Government even mandates that there is no reason nor way to fight against Epics. Part of the reason why the Reckoners exist is to prove them wrong.
  • New Neo City: Newcago.
  • Nigh-Invulnerability: Several of the most powerful Epics are said to have "prime invincibility"; that is, they can't be killed by ordinary means. Steelheart has the classic "bulletproof" form. Fortuity's precognition lets him anticipate and avoid attacks. Nightwielder is intangible and most attacks simply pass through him. Firefight (Megan) reincarnates after death, sans her most recent memories. Limelight has two such powers: forcefields and a Healing Factor.
  • The Night That Never Ends: Nightwielder has kept Newcago covered in perpetual darkness ever since Steelheart took power to both oppress the people and protect himself from his weakness to sunlight.
  • Oh, My Gods!: "Calamity!"
  • Only Flesh Is Safe:
    • Tensors can pulverize most matter, but can't affect flesh (at one point a skilled user punches some Enforcement mooks while disintegrating holes in their body armor for his fist to go through).
    • Steelheart's metal-transmutation power also can't affect living beings, and many other Epic powers are the same.
  • The Plan: The plot is driven by the Reckoners' scheme to kill Steelheart.
  • Reign of Terror: Steelheart holds Newcago under one, and the majority of Epics do the same to the whole world. Steelheart's is deliberate and necessary, as he is only vulnerable to those who do not fear him.
  • Science Hero: Prof plays up the image, wearing a black labcoat as his Reckoner outfit. He was actually an elementary school science teacher. His wonder gadgets are produced using his Epic powers, not his own expertise.
  • Secret Test of Character: One of the theories about the Epics is that they were sent to see how mankind would weather the storm. Megan wonders about it from another direction, to see how humans would react to being given supreme power. The fact that she looks at it from the Epic point of view foreshadows the fact that she is an Epic herself.
  • Shout-Out: As expected in a work about super-powered beings, there are references to their roots.
  • Sidetracked by the Analogy: David's habit of making up his own idioms inevitably derails the conversation briefly into him trying to explain them.
  • Smug Super: Every Epic. An easy way to tell an Epic from a normal human is to see how they act when they are in charge of everything. This is a symptom of using Epic powers. Megan shows less of it when she doesn't use her power, and more when she does; the same is true of Prof.
  • Stripped to the Bone:
    • What happens to the victims of Deathpoint's eponymous power.
    • Happens to Steelheart in the end; the only remains left behind are a stripped skeleton made of solid steel.
  • Super-Empowering: Transference Epics, or "Gifters," are able to give their powers and their addictive, insanity-inducing effects to others. However, as revealed by Conflux, these cannot be given to other Epics, only to normal humans.
  • Super Villain: A basic part of the premise is that there are supervillains aplenty, but no super heroes to counter them.
  • The Trains Run on Time:
    • Steelheart may be a brutal dictator, but he also provides more stability and order in his little empire than most of the rest of the world has. Because of this, not everyone (even among the Reckoners) believes he deserves to die. On the other hand, others see it as part of the problem:
      Prof: Everyone talks about how great Newcago is. But it's not great; it's good by comparison only! Yes, there are worse places, but so long as this hellhole is considered the ideal, we'll never get anywhere. We cannot let them convince us this is normal!
    • Note that the comparison Prof mentions could very easily be 'Leave Portland, Oregon a lifeless wasteland.' Small wonder then that Newcago's considered the ideal.
  • Weakened by the Light: Nightwielder, Steelheart's Intangible Man lieutenant, becomes solid when exposed to sunlight (or more specifically, UV light).
  • Weaksauce Weakness: Some Epics have fairly unimpressive weaknesses. The minor Epic Refractionary, for example, can create illusions and turn herself invisible, but her powers are canceled by any kind of smoke.
  • What Kind of Lame Power Is Heart, Anyway?: The most powerful Epics are basically gods. Then you have Curveball, whose only power is not needing to reload his handgun.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: Some of the Reckoners, especially Abraham, don't consider the Epics human. However, in an inversion, this is because they have more power, not less.
  • Whole-Plot Reference: A Sanderson book about a resistance group and its mysterious leader with his own agenda fighting a tyrannical but stable system ruled by an apparently invincible overlord, a talented but inexperienced orphan as the POV character, and several layers of deception and misdirection both in-narrative and out, such as a plot by said resistance to make an entirely fake person in the universe's privileged class. Are we talking about the Reckoners or Mistborn: The Original Trilogy?
  • With Great Power Comes Great Insanity: One of the theories as to why all Epics are evil is that the powers themselves do something to your mind. Strongly implied to be true by The Reveal. Prof's personality visibly changes when he has been using his powers, and David reports finding the secondhand power of the tensors mildly addictive. Also, Megan becomes angry and hateful when hiding herself and David in the elevator chute.
  • Worthless Yellow Rocks: Inverted. Gold is one of the few commodities remaining (besides food) that still has value, because it's one of the few materials that Epics don't seem capable of creating out of thin air. Steel, for example, is literally worth less than dirt in Newcago due to Steelheart's transmutation ability.
  • You Killed My Father: Steelheart killed David's father, and David wants revenge.
  • Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters: David reflects on this as the Reckoners prepare to blow up a power plant as part of their fake-Epic setup.
    For the first time in my life, I found myself nearly as worried about what I might end up doing as I was about what someone might do to me. It was an uncomfortable situation. What we were doing was, basically, terrorism. But we're the good guys, I told myself... Of course, what terrorist didn't think he or she was the good guy? We were doing something important, but what would that matter to the family of the cleaning woman we accidentally killed?