Brandon Sanderson


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Steelheart Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature  detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson.

2013’s Steelheart is the first in The Reckoners trilogy of young adult novels. Written by Brandon Sanderson in the superhero genre, the series posits a near future world in which the expression “all power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” has come to pass in a literal way. A burst of unusual radiation causes some humans to develop superpowers, but all those who indulge this newfound potential turn into villains rather than heroes. The trilogy follows the exploits of a group of ordinary humans struggling to right a world overrun by fantastically powerful evil beings.

The novel’s prologue establishes the recent history of the world, and also the biography of our protagonist, David Charleston. Twelve years earlier, a mysterious object irradiated the Earth and caused a small group of humans to evolve radically wide-reaching superpowers. These Epic humans almost immediately turned away from altruism and toward self-gratifying behavior. Over the past decade, as the most powerful Epics have enslaved the non-powered humans, traditional governments and social systems have collapsed, and the world functions in a quasi-feudal system of city-states and areas of chaos.

David Charleston lives in Newcago, the sprawling megalopolis that has replaced Chicago. Ten years ago, when he was eight, David and his father were caught in the middle of a fight between two Epics, Steelheart and Deathpoint. Deathpoint was attempting to rob a bank by turning its guards into skeletons, but was interrupted by Steelheart, a High Epic whose many powers were thought to include invulnerability. Assuming that Steelheart was there to stop Deathpoint, David’s father decided to help out by shooting Deathpoint with one of the dead guards’ guns. When the bullet grazed Steelheart’s cheek, David noticed that it managed to draw blood. As David ran to hide in the bank’s vault, a furious Steelheart murdered his father, and then proceeded to kill every single other survivor of Deathpoint’s attack.

Since then, David has figured out that the reason Steelheart wanted everyone in the bank dead was to preserve the fiction that he was entirely invulnerable – anyone who had witnessed the bullet injure him was a liability. Driven by his desire for avenging his father’s death, he has spent the last ten years learning everything he possibly can about Epics and their weaknesses.

In the present day, Steelheart has become the ruler of Newcago. Although he has transformed most of the city to steel by using his main power, and although his second-in-command, Nightwielder, has permanently blocked all sunlight, Newcago is a comparatively safe place to live. Unlike those living in the dangerous and terrifying lands of the Fractured States, Newcago’s residents have electricity, food, and clean water. Nevertheless, it is an existence of living and working in underground mines at the mercy of the powerful Epics Steelheart has gathered around himself.

David connects with the Reckoners, a small band of resistance fighters led by Professor Jonathan Phaedrus. The Reckoners want to kill as many Epics as possible in order to return the Earth to its previous state. Aiding them in this fight are Tensors, technologically advanced gloves which can tunnel through inanimate matter like steel – tunnels which the group uses as escape routes, traps, or hiding places; Harmsway, a machine that heals wounds; and clothing that has built-in shielding tech. David joins at the same time as Megan, another new recruit – and David quickly falls in love with her. After David shows the Reckoners his notes about Steelheart and the limits of his invulnerability, the group decides to focus on Steelheart as a new target.

The Reckoners quickly formulate a plan to draw Steelheart out. They will simulate the activity of a fake new Epic named Limelight and challenge Steelheart to a duel – a duel in which they will test a variety of theories about ways in which Steelheart could be hurt. Their first Limelight attack succeeds: they blow up a power plant. But the second Limelight attack fails: the plan to kill Conflux, one of Steelheart’s henchmen, goes awry when Megan is accidentally killed, but the Reckoners do end up kidnapping Conflux. Accepting these exploits as the work of Limelight, Steelheart agrees to face this new Epic.

The Reckoners set up their traps in the dueling arena, Soldier Field, intending to figure out what Steelheart’s vulnerability is: the contents of the bank vault, David’s father’s gun, being caught in crossfire, or being attacked by someone who believes in the possibility of good Epics. But because Steelheart’s allies Nightwielder and Firefight join the fight, the Reckoners can test everything except David’s father’s gun on Steelheart. In the fight, David kills Nightwielder – but Firefight reveals herself to be Megan, an illusionist Epic who had infiltrated the Reckoners on Steelheart’s orders. Because she hasn’t been using her powers while with the group, some of their evil effects have been wearing off, and Megan lets David go rather than capturing him.

David and Prof square off against Steelheart, but Prof is killed – and David figures out that his father’s gun also isn’t what can injure Steelheart. Instead, in a flash of inspiration, David realizes that what can hurt Steelheart is being attacked by someone who isn’t afraid of him. David tricks Steelheart into activating an explosive device, and so Steelheart is killed by the one person who isn’t frightened of him – himself.

After the fight, it turns out that many things aren’t as they seem. Prof isn’t dead, but is instead an Epic who hasn’t been using his powers and has thus not turned evil – he has been transferring his superpowers into the technology the Reckoners have been using. Also Megan has lost all memory of having interacted with the Reckoners, and leaves David to rejoin the Epics.

The novel ends with David realizing that his work isn’t done, and that he will continue fighting not for revenge, but for his father’s dream of good Epics.