Monthly Archives: September 2013

Review: Steelheart

I have to thank Gollancz for sending me this book, Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson (amazon, goodreads), to review.

This is the first time I’ve read Sanderson; I’ve had a library copy of ‘Final Empire’ sitting on my shelves for a few weeks after an online recommendation but hadn’t got around to reading it. I don’t read a lot of fantasy, sticking mainly to crime and science fiction, but have been reading more lately. I’d read the Prologue to Steelheart somewhere a while back and it had grabbed me from the off so when Gollancz were asking for reviewers, I added my name to the pot, was selected, and the book landed a couple of days ago. I’m also not great at reviewing, finding myself dragged into a story so much that I forget to look at it from the outside, from another’s perspective. So I’ve started this review before opening the book and will try to keep it going as I read. So, let’s get going.

Okay, the Prologue. It is an excellent introduction in that it sets out the world of the story and raises all the questions that it will likely go on to explore, all in a tense sixteen pages. After the appearance of some strange force in the skies, ordinary people have been transformed into superheroes, or people with superhero-like powers; they are called Epics. These people are using their powers to enslave the rest of the population. David, a boy of eight, sees one such Epic, Steelheart, kill his father. But he, alone, also sees that the Epic can be wounded although unaware of what circumstances combined to permit this wounding. The story quest is laid out for us: David must discover Steelheart’s weakness and defeat him. I didn’t remember all of the Prologue from my previous reading, but it was soon obvious to me why I had been so keen on getting the whole book.

The book proper starts ten years after the prologue. In all but a few isolated outposts, the (US) government has capitulated to the Epics. From the off we’re in the world of noirish fiction — everywhere is dark and the people are clothed in Prohibition-era styled clothing — only with added sci-fi, such as anti-gravity. (There’s more than a hint of the movie, Dark City, in this novel.) David’s first task in his vengeance quest is to join the one group out to take down the Epics: the Reckoners. He brings himself to their attention with some style. Of course, he then has to convince them to let him join. And this is where his ten years dedicated to studying the Epics pays off.

The story is well told and expertly written. The ‘voice’ of the novel, that of the narrator, David, an eighteen year old forced to grow up alone in a new and terrifying world order, is a convincing mix of naivety and painful experience. The tropes and character types, even the story arc, will be familiar to anyone who has read any comic that has built on the genre-switching base that was Watchman. That is no criticism. Steelheart may not be a game-changer but it fits its niche very well indeed.

I’ll stop the review-along here as any more will contain spoilers. I was unsure, half way through, whether I’d bother with the rest of this series. There was too much that was familiar from other story worlds, ones that hadn’t kept me interested. But I have to say that there are enough twists at the end to make me want to read the next book in the series. And Sanderson is a very good writer. How it gets to one of the twists is a little unbelievable but, hell, the story is good enough to hold the suspension of disbelief. This book is definitely one to pick up and stick with through to the end and I certainly recommend it to any lover of urban, dark or superhero fantasy or anyone who just loves a well-told tale.

pp14-15: nil posse creari de nilo

Here are pages 14-15 of Loeb’s De Rerum Natura from which I have extracted the key phrase of ‘nil posse creari de nilo’, ‘nothing can be created from nothing’ (which even Julie Andrews understood). All I had to do was figure out how to illustrate nothing coming from nothing.

The corollary to that statement is that something always comes from something, i.e. that anything new is created from other things already existing, not out of nothing by divine intervention, and this is what Lucretius wants to emphasise. 

I chose to illustrate this fairly simply, with abstract shapes and primary colours, which have mainly disintegrated to form shapes of secondary, tertiary etc colours. 

De Rerum 7

I did try to use an app that I’d not used before but could not find one that would allow me to paint with colours and then erase them in a manner that suggested decay. Only Procreate had an eraser that could take on many forms (or might be edited into new forms). All the colours were built up in layers using either charcoal or paintbrush forms and then selectively erased using two forms of eraser. I have to say that I do love the way in which brushes (including the eraser) can be edited in Procreate. I can see that I’m going to find it difficult to use apps apart from this and ArtRage.

[And, yes, the primary yellow shape represents the sun (or, stars in general), from which all other elements derive, so is not as ‘destroyed’ as much as the other primary coloured shapes of red and blue. It might have been better representative if the whole base layer had been yellow and only lightly broken up, but the image would have been less ‘right’ for me.]

pp 12-13: bound by religion

Here are pages 12-13 of Loeb’s De Rerum Natura that I have illustrated (the right word in this case: this image owes more to illustration than art). The theme of religious superstition continues, talking about how men fail to defy the priests because of their fear of everlasting punishment after death.

I saw this as a web of fear that we construct for ourselves and into which we are enmeshed. So, the spider’s web as part of the image came quickly. It was only after drawing the web that I thought of tying Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man into the web. It seemed appropriate to contrast the web of superstition with an iconic image from one of humanity’s greatest thinkers and artists. What we might be if we could escape that web: which we can do with the help of Epicurus’ philosophy.

De Rerum 6

This has again been produced using ArtRage using the roller for the grey background and the fine marker tool for the web and Vitruvian Man. Both the web and the men were copied by importing photographs first and tracing over them.

pp 10-11 murderous outcome of superstition

This is the fourth set of pages from Loeb’s De Rerum Natura that I’ve worked on. It includes a description of what happens when people fall under the spell of religious superstition. Believing that Artemis has stranded the Greek fleet waiting to sail to Troy, Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter, Iphigenia, to appease her.

I can think of no more appropriate example of the stupidity of religious infatuation unless it is the story of Abraham intending to do the same to his son, Isaac. It took me along time to think of an image appropriate to this rage I felt and, in the end, I failed. I spent a long time trying to draw a sword with blood running down it in a form that resembled a girl’s hair. If I could have done justice to such an image, I might have persisted, but eventually gave up and went with this one of blood running down over the page. In a way, I think it might work even better. The brush strokes at the top do resemble the curling of a girl’s hair but aren’t too obvious. And having it run down makes it look almost as if it is pouring down from heaven and flooding the earth. If there are any gods, they would surely weep tears of blood at the way humans vent their own blood lust in their names.

De Rerum 5

The image was created in ArtRage with the square oil paint brush.

pp 8-9: religious superstition

This is the fourth set of pages from Loeb’s De Rerum Natura that I’ve ‘adorned’. [Not sure what word is appropriate there; ‘illustrated’ would indicate that the text is left undisturbed whereas I’m definitely disturbing it, especially today; ‘ornamented’ too prissy; ’embellished’ implies I’m making them more beautiful; ‘adorned’ sounds too fancy but might be the nearest.]

This page touches on the debunking of religious superstition: that the world and its construction & phenomena are adequately explained by what we would call science, i.e. observation and deduction. I used a figure that I played around with some time ago. It began life as the Minotaur’s head and morphed into a much more stylised version of that. I thought it would suit here since the sacrifice of bulls is central to many ancient religions as a means of pacifying the gods.

Having the figure, I then tried a number of ways of adding it to the text with colouring the text, adding other figures etc. In the end, it seemed more appropriate to simply black out the text and carve the figure from that. Semi-fortuitously, the word ‘superstition’ was then revealed.

De Rerum 4

This one was created in ArtRage with a layer filled in with black added over the page and then the figure exposed using the eraser set to maximum hardness. The eyes and mouth were added using the chalk/pastel tool in another layer.

pp 6-7: atoms

The third set of pages in this project, pp 6-7 of De Rerum Natura. This extract contains the first mention by Lucretius of ‘rerum primordia’, the ‘first-beginnings of things’: atoms. This concept is one of the parts of this work that I love most – from thought only, Epicurus (and forerunners) derived the nature of the universe as being composed of tiny particles in empty space. Later we get ideas such as elements, compounds and more of physics and chemistry. Truly marvellous.

This image is simple but took longer than the two before combined. I tried several approaches without success and settled on overlaying the pages with the latin words ‘et rerum primordia’ formed of atom-like blobs. Corny, I know, but I’m not yet artistic enough to make a better image for this debut of the theory of atoms.

De Rerum 3

The text was built using SimplyMPress, the wonderfully simplified version of LetterMPress (a Kickstarter-funded project of which I was a sponsor). The page and the text were combined using Procreate (page scan layer was dropped in opacity to make the text stand out).