John Ostrander: Brandon Sanderson’s Brave New (Super)World


SPOILER ALERT: In discussing Brandon Sanderson’s Reckoners trilogy, I may reveal one or two of its secrets. I tried really hard not to, but it may be unavoidable here and there. You are warned!

Creating a superhero universe is difficult. It needs to be coherent and make sense within itself; to obey its own rules. You don’t want it to be like established superhero universes (Marvel, DC, and so on) but it will need to follow certain tropes. You want to give the reader the thrill of discovering something new but not so unfamiliar, so alien, that they can’t identify with it. You need to attract the superhero fan but you also need to get a wider audience. It has to work as a straight forward action / adventure / suspense story and still feel super-hero-y. It’s trickier than you might think.

It’s also tougher if you’re trying to do it in prose sans the illustration. Isn’t the art the main component for a good superhero story?

Maybe. Maybe not.

I recently finished reading Calamity, the third and final novel in The Reckoners trilogy by Brandon Sanderson. (The first two books were Steelheart and Firefight.) The metahumans are called Epics and just about all of them all supervillains. An entity dubbed Calamity showed up orbiting the Earth like a small red sun and ordinary humans acquired extraordinary powers. That which gave them strange new abilities also turned them nasty. They kill wantonly, sometimes randomly, and rule different cities, often warring between themselves and utterly indifferent to the carnage they wreak on the humans living there.

The Reckoners are a group of ordinary humans who are fighting a Resistance type action against Epics. Their intent is to kill those that they can but the really powerful ones, the “High Epics”, seem out of reach. The group is joined by David Charleston who is also our host and narrator. David’s father was killed about ten years before the story starts by the Epic Steelheart who rules Newcago (formerly Chicago) as the series starts.

There’s lots to like in this trilogy. David, who has been obsessively studying the Epics most of his life, figures out that each metahuman’s weakness is tied to their nightmares, to their fears. I like that. It ties the weakness into character which is better than something arbitrary like kryptonite. It ties very deeply into the final resolution in the last book.

There’s a strong streak of science fiction in the books as well; there are three cities, one for each book – Chicago (Newcago), New York (Babilar) and Atlanta (Ildithia). Each one is re-imagined in the light of this post-apocalyptic world ruled by Epics.

The books are not perfect. The naming of the Epics is hit and miss; sometimes it’s right and sometimes it makes me go “Huh?” I’m also not sure why the metahumans are dubbed “Epics”. I understand the desire to avoid the words “superhuman” or even “metahuman” but why would anyone call them “Epics”?

Mr. Sanderson (our author) also has a habit of ending chapters of some sort of cliffhanger. A twist can’t be unexpected if you know it’s coming. There’s a temptation to peek ahead to the last sentence or so of the chapter you’re reading to see what’s coming. That said, the twists do move the story along smartly and they are effective. In fact, all three books are page-turners. They’re well written, the characters are sharp and engaging, and there’s some thought put into ‘em. The trilogy ties up the main story by its conclusion but I wouldn’t mind going back to the world Sanderson has created.

Even if it isn’t in four-colors.