In this review I’m going to be grumpy about two books before telling you about the awesome third book. Feel free to skip to the end if you only want joy and positivity in your life. I haven’t been writing enough this month, so have some reviews of other peoples’ writing instead.
Imagine a world where there are supervillains, but no superheros. This is probably how Brandon Sanderson’s book Steelheart was first pitched. It’s a YA novel, which I didn’t know when I picked it up, but which makes sense in retrospect as the prose seems less mature than his other books. Why it has to be like that for a YA book I’m not sure. The varied powersets and general “dark superpower” vibe reminds me a lot of the web serial Worm by Wildbow, which is well worth checking out if you haven’t already.
Sanderson has this wonderful philosophy that the seeds of any twist have to be both planted and well-watered before the twist is revealed. This is great for anyone (like me) who was annoyed by Sherlock Holmes always having extra information that the reader did not. He does that here and he does it well.
Less well done is the idea that the protagonist loves metaphors but is awful at them. It feels a little trite and immature, although the imagery is occasionally hilarious. A full book of this just feels like the author is trying a little too hard.
My biggest complaint though is one of the final reveals – and major spoilers for the story lie ahead in this paragraph so stop reading here if you don’t want to find out. This story is such a perfect setup for questions of how people deal with having more power than their peers, and those questions are even hinted at earlier in the book. Then we find out that gaining (or more accurately using) superpowers literally makes their owner immoral, mean, narcissistic, etc. In other words, villainous. So all those questions and possibilities are suddenly dumped for a simple explanation. I found that incredibly disappointing.
Steelheart is the first of a series, I probably won’t read the rest.
The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt is fun, but was a bit of a challenge to finish. The book is in such a hurry to hit its “EPIC SCENES” that the protagonists fail to truly earn their skills. Instead a couple of mild mannered outcasts suddenly gain Awesome Power and Arsekicking Abilities. Also irritatingor sometimes endearing, was the way that everything seemed to be named after real world equivalents, for example the Carlists and their communityism. You mean the Marxists and their communism? Pretty much. Having said all that though there were some great ideas and images in this book and it kept a good pace up over quite a few pages.
The third book I read this week was actually two novellas, again by Brandon Sanderson. The first story, Legion, is about a man who apparently has multiple personalities, all of whom are geniuses. He’s approached by a mysterious company which claims to have a camera which can photograph the past. It packs some great characterisation and even philosophical points. There’s decent action and at the end I was left wanting more.
The second story is The Emperor’s Soul, which is also fantastic and has the distinction of being fascinating and hard to put down despite the main character spending 90% of the book locked in a room doing research. The Emperor of the title has been put into a coma by a semi-successful assassination attempt, and our protagonist has to forge a believable replica of his entire personality. It’s something of a meditation on how the tiniest experiences and facets of our personality come together to form our self. Apparently it’s from the same world as his first book Elantris, which I haven’t read yet, but now apparently need to. Rather than the open end of Legion, The Emperor’s Soul ends with a satisfying finality.
So the reason I read three book this week (OK, ten days) is because I now have a library card. This is dangerous. Sometimes I think I could happily spend my whole life consuming the scifi/fantasy section of libraries. I did spend a fair proportion of my childhood reading every Anne McCaffery book (hrm…) and Terry Pratchett novel (time well spent) that Blaby Library would stock.
I do think I was disappointed with Steelheart because I expect more from Sanderson. I’ve watched his lectures on writing on youtube and I’m listening to his Writing Excuses podcast now, and so I very much look up to him as an author, especially an author with a machine-like ability to pump out good books. I admire that, and I wonder why a YA book has to feel immature. When you are yourself a teenager you don’t feel immature. Perhaps my disappointment is just because I’m no longer the target audience and haven’t been for some time!