Steelheart, by Brandon Sanderson (2013)

Check out my review policy for a few disclaimers before proceeding.

Content Warnings: Fake mixed with a little actual swearing, people dying in especially horrible ways, lots of violence.

For once, I have encountered a Brandon Sanderson book I didn’t like all that much.

The story is set in a world with supervillains but no superheroes, which, being as both the terms superheroes and supervillians are trademarked (no, seriously) they are called Epics instead. These Epics do whatever they please, such as disintegrating small children, an incident that is not only described in the prologue, but described in detail. And this is allegedly a Young Adult novel.

Our hero, David, as an eight-year-old witnesses said disintegration and that of several other innocents by an Epic, also watches as a different Epic, the eponymous Steelheart kills his father. Incidentally, David sees the otherwise invincible Steelheart bleed, which forms the thrust of the story.

The story then fast-forwards ten years, to a mostly post-apocalyptic post-Chicago called Newcago in the post-America called the Fractured States*. The Epics rule under the super-rule of Steelheart and commit various atrocities (they are supervillians), some of which are described, again, in detail. David seeks, and eventually joins the Reckoners, a group of Epic-killers. Note that I did not say freedom fighters or rebels. They are Epic-killers. I have ethical qualms here.

For one, they outright admit they are not trying to set up a new government, only to overthrow the old, Epic-ruled one—by killing them. Their methods are literally those of extremists, as they repeatedly do things because it was the “only” way. I’ve written before on this very blog about killing people with super-powers, such as the Gods in the The War Against the Gods. While Epic-killing might arguably fall under Tyrannicide, I’m not buying said argument. The Reckoners commit various acts which are closer to terrorism towards the people of Newcago than a mere assassination attempt against their evil overlord. In fact, one of the characters brings up this very point, which is never satisfactorily explained away.

What makes it worse is that Brandon Sanderson did write a book about Tyrannicide in the just sense. It was called Mistborn. In it the heroes were at least not generally harming the innocent.

In fact, aside from the setting and moral differences, you could just about switch the characters of Steelheart and Mistborn and get more or less the same books. This is fine, I guess, but I’d seriously like to see a different general plot than “overthrow the overlord”.

The rest of the book, aside from the dubiously ethical parts, contains battle scenes, explosions, people saying the word “slontze”, and the general sort of actiony things your general YA book for boys has. It also contains depressing parts, which, like in Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings are kinda a bit too depressing.

In closing, I give this a bittern of mixed feelings. If this wasn’t a YA book, I’d have held it to different standards, but as it is, I’m dubious about it.


* The names, as usual, are pretty cool if slightly dorky in the “Why would people actually call it that” way. In my main, as-of-yet unwritten series there used to be a nation called the Reunited States, but I found that a bit too hard to swallow, and renamed it just the Union.

Beyonders Series, by Brandon Mull

Check out my review policy for a few disclaimers before proceeding.

Content Warnings: Mild scenes of torture, several suicides, lots of death, possibly objectionable use of magic, definitely objectionable use of deception, and some other things. But hey, no swearing!

I have often desired to read or, possibly, write, a portal fantasy that starts off normal and then is derailed into something crazy. This series, to my surprise, was mostly what I was looking for.

The first book, A Land Without Heroes, starts out with the sadly-now-somewhat-cliche Evil Peeps have Already Won trope. Maldor, the evil wizard-emperor, rules most of the land of Lyrian, with only a few holdouts which are either under siege or neutral. His greatest enemies have either been turned to his side, horribly maimed, tortured, or left in exile, and the only reason anyone succeeds in opposing him is out of his malign playfulness.

As I warned, there is torture and suicide in this book. The first scene is Maldor interrogating one of the last “heroes”, who he has blinded. A few scenes later, Jason Walker, our protagonist, is eaten by a magical, musical hippopotamus (I am not making this up) and lands in Lyrian, The music of the hippo is actually that of the band called the Giddy Nine, who, unable to play their music, is commiting suicide via waterfall, and their last music summons him. One of the accidental survivors of the Giddy Nine, Tark, later a main character, is driven by guilt over not dying with them. Yeah, this series is a little dark.

Jason is soon drawn into the war, when he accidentally discovers one of the six syllables of the Word that will destroy Maldor. He is soon joined by Rachel, another “beyonder”. They are soon offered the choice either to live a mostly normal life on a farm in Lyrian, or to become heroes and continue the fight. This is a common theme in this series, thankfully more common than that of the themes of suicide and torture. (Did I mention that those two were in this series?)

Unfortunately, the massive plot twist that ends Book One is inadvertently revealed by the length of the series, and half-way through the first book you can surmise that all is not as it seems. Book Two, Seeds of Rebellion, begins the derailment in earnest, with people running around doing things and other people dying. Jason learns to become a swordsman, and Rachel a sorceress. While I cannot object to the former, the latter is potentially objectionable, c.f. here and here. While Jason remains a relatively skilled but otherwise mortal swordsman, Rachel is a magical prodigy, learning the incredibly dangerous yet powerful language of Edomic.

The final book, Chasing the Prophecy, is regarding a final prophecy given by an oracle, ordering a twin set of seemingly bizarre and, yes, possibly suicidal, quests to finally defeat Maldor. The arbitrariness of the prophecy, down to the specific heroes to go on each quest, is an element with which I disagree. At one point a character takes an action which succeeds precisely because it was arbitrary. This is something I just can’t buy. Sure, it’s internally consistent, but it makes no overall sense. The ending, while good, feels a bit like a series of deus ex machinae to me. In the epilogue, for no discernible reason, one beyonder is required to return to Earth, while the other must stay.

Now for the elephant in the room, to which I have alluded multiple times: suicide and torture.

This series has no compunctions about having people take actions which will surely, or almost surely, lead to their deaths. While one could claim this is a form of martyrdom, it is not, because martyrdom involves other people killing you. Furthermore, the phoenix-like Amar Kabal kill themselves ritualistically in order to establish their future lives. I honestly don’t find this amount of suicide appropriate for a Young Adult novel, or series thereof.

Secondly, the torture is hardly justifiable, especially when it is partially described! At one point, one horribly tortured character plans to horribly torture another character. He doesn’t, but still…

(Not, mind you, that I object to either of them in the background of a Young Adult novel, but having them actively happen is another matter.)

As for explicitly religious aspects, aside from an off-hand reference to Providence once or twice, there are none. I believe that the author is a Mormon, thus explaining the relative cleanliness of the series. There is no sex. The castle of Harthenham, a sort of tempting paradise, is restricted to Gluttony and Sloth of the deadly sins. There are no demons (the torivors don’t count).

The series is incredibly creative, with several unique creatures, races, and locations, and even interesting spins on such common tropes as zombies and GIANT ENEMY CRABS. If you can get past the bad bits, this is an entirely appropriate book for Young Adults, unlike much “Young Adult” literature nowadays.

SYLO, by D.J. MacHale (2013)

Check out my review policy for a few disclaimers before proceeding.

Content Warning: Swearing, people and children dying in divers horrible ways.

I’m of mixed feelings about this book.

I was a fan of the author’s earlier, bestselling the Pendragon Adventure, except for the last book. So I picked up this one with mild trepidation, given additionally as I am not a fan of thrillers. Nevertheless, D.J. MacHale’s status as a bestselling author is deserved, and I found myself enjoying it. Somewhat.

The plot is difficult to describe, consisting of several disparate threads, all set (for almost all of the book), on a island off the coast of Maine called Pemberwick. One thread is the (ab)use of a steroid on steroids called the Ruby, which gives the user superhuman athletic powers at the potential danger of insanity and death. Another thread is the eponymous SYLO, a secret naval organization which invades and quarantines Pemberwick Island, under pretenses soon shown to be false. Another is UFOs. Another is the romantic failings of Tucker Pierce, the main character. The characters themselves are equally puzzled as the reader as to the convergence of all this.

There is some amount of consequentialism (the end justifying the means)in this book, which is to be expected in about any modern American novel. The use of the Ruby is said to be immoral, but Tucker uses it anyway for the sake of the Good Guys at one point (with mixed results). Then again, MacHale has sometimes written of the consequences of consequentialism (when breaking the rules turns out to be a Bad Thing in the Pendragon Adventure), which is better than many authors can say.

All that said, it’s a decent book. I give it one Least Bittern of confused but positive neutrality.

Nonfiction Review: The Emperor’s New Mind, by Roger Penrose (1989)

There are some books so good that they’re worth reading even if you disagree with them. This is one of them.

Most of the book is dedicated to a tour de force through computing, mathematics, and physics. The book is intended to be read by laymen, though sometimes the “simplifications” seem to make things more complicated at first.  I read every word, but I think I only understood around twenty percent of the book, and most of that was things I already knew.

Of course, I  actually agree with Penrose’s main argument, but I know (and Penrose readily admits) it’s quite controversial. The argument? It is that theorems such as the Halting Problem and Gödel’s incompleteness theorem prevent a strong AI from ever being created, or, in short, that brains are not computers.

Penrose’s specific argument relies on a kind of mathematical Platonism, again, a controversial view. I’m not sure if I agree with the existence of numbers as some kinds of eternal, uncreated things. Did God create the integers, or are integers an aspect of God? Certainly mortal conceptions of logical systems are flawed, as shown by Godel’s incompleteness theorem. But from God’s perspective, knowing through Omniscience all true logical propositions, is He seeing the Creator or Creation?

The form of objective reduction of Quantum Mechanics that Penrose proposes does not actually rely on observer effects, which is  relieving. Penrose has a point that  a world requiring conscious beings to collapse waveforms is absurd in that most of the universe does not actually exist. This does bring the question of how free will interacts with the world, but Penrose does not claim to explain everything in Heaven and Earth, but only that the emperors of Strong AI are naked. 

Marrow, by Robert Reed (1997)

Check out my review policy for a few disclaimers before proceeding.

Content warnings: swearing, glossed-over sex, including interspecies sex (what?), lots of people getting decapitated (most of them get better) and miscellaneous violence in cruel detail.

One of my favorite wonderings is wondering how long it would take for humans starting with nothing but knowledge to build themselves into a space-capable civilization. This book almost delivers.

The story revolves around a planet, unsurprisingly named Marrow. Unlike most planets, this one is held by force fields inside a massive, Jupiter-sized derelict alien spaceship called the Great Ship. At the start of the book the Great Ship has long since been settled by humans, who use it as some combination of habitat and interstellar taxi service for other species. Humans, at this point, are now immortal cyborgs, as the book’s plot spans millennia.

A short aside: If transhumanism ever pans out, as it often does in SF novels, and once all the kinks are worked out, I doubt humanity and its culture would remain mostly the same except that everyone lives forever. Brain uploads, personality rewriting, group minds, post-singularity AIs, or any of the common tropes would lead to a vastly different world. In particular, after reading the Golden Age trilogy by John C. Wright, I inevitably compare transhuman visions with it and find most wanting.

In any case, the book starts with some of the best and brightest captains of the ship having a secret meeting, wherein it is revealed that deep inside the Great Ship lays an unexplored, unknown planet. On their expedition, the bridge back home is destroyed in an event known as the Event, leaving the captains stranded on Marrow. After waiting for rescue for several years, they realize they’re on their own.

A good portion of the book is spent on Marrow, where the godlike transhumans are reduced to a nomadic tribal society. To achieve the necessary industrial base to return, they produce children, but many rebels split off to form their own tribe. I wished this portion was longer, but most of it is glossed over.

After they return comes a some violent episodes and several plot twists. I had already been spoiled by a vague memory of the original novella that of which this book was based, but I will not spoil you, and simply leave you to read the book.

The ending I found anticlimactic and hard to follow, though having read the book in a single sitting, I may have been too tired to read it right.

As for its moral content, I must say I was disappointed, particularly with the brief and squick-inducing mention of human-alien sex. Of more concern is the level of violence, which is overly depicted. As for religion, as with many secular SF stories it is depicted as for fools. The two religions depicted on Marrow, the Waywards and the Loyalists, are both false. The one afterlife scene is later shown to be a virtual reality. Then again, at least it didn’t rant against real religions, which is a plus I guess?

My verdict: Good enough to read, not enough for me to re-read. I plan to check out the sequel from my local library. I give it one bittern of mostly neutral approval.