Calamity Review: Brilliant As A Radioactive Manatee

By Christina Ladd on

About Christina Ladd

One of the Books & Comics editors at Geekly. She/her. Sailor Rainbow. Glitter and spite and everything bright.


No, there aren’t atomic Trichechidae in this story. It’s not that they would be out of place–this is a series about people with superhuman but often deeply strange abilities–but they exist only in the mind of the metaphor-destroyer and Steelslayer, David Charleston. Yes, David is back for this final installment of the Reckoners, and it’s a doozy.

Sanderson, ever the king of ante-upping, has set David & co. two impossible tasks during this final installment. First they have to stop Prof, who has succumbed to his worse nature and turned into the kind of Epic that the Reckoners oppose. He also happens to be their beloved former leader and David’s surrogate father. And if they somehow manage to turn him from the dark side, they have to destroy the source of all Epics, the strange red star known as Calamity. Yeah, no big.


Fortunately, David still has his loyal and capable team, and he still has an Epic ally. Yes, Megan is here too, the socially capable if occasionally sociopathic foil to David’s endearing awkwardness. Everyone’s quirks are in top form here, enlivening the otherwise dire situation: Prof wants them dead, but only after he completes some kind of diabolical plan, and Calamity still rages in the sky, and the Reckoners are fighting a losing battle. It’s the stuff conclusions are made of, and this one is satisfying from the very first sea-cow related simile to the fantastic espionage and battles in this book’s chosen city, Atlanta.

A little something about me you should know: I lived in Atlanta. And I hated it. So I’m even more thrilled than your average bear to see it show up here. I want to see it get wrecked.

Well, more wrecked. It’s already a bit rough around the edges–those edges being significantly less sprawling than current-Atlanta’s edges. Post-Calamity Atlanta is only about seven miles worth of central Atlanta, but it still retains its characteristic racial divides. And it’s still inhospitable, only now that’s because it’s made purely of salt, transformed by an Epic’s powers. And it still manages to expand into places where it’s not wanted. There’s something to be said to clinging to your principles: even post-apocalyptic Atlanta believes in rapid, unsustainable growth, with the “back” of the city dissolving and automatically rebuilding in the “front,” a ten day cycle that has slowly moved it from Georgia to the middle of Kansas.

Sorry, Kansas.

It is somewhat satisfying to see how the city can no longer tolerate the cars that have, in this era, made it a trafficky laughingstock. All the cars, like Lot’s wife, are turned to salt! Hurrah! Instead, everyone must use bicycles to get around, and since the city itself moves, they are constantly walking. As someone who made it without a car for years in that hellhole of absent sidewalks and pedestrian-bowling motorists, I can only say: (imagined) vengeance is so sweet.

Snow, not salt. Not YET.

Ahem. Schadenfreude aside (for the moment), vengeance is not so sweet for David, who wants to save Prof rather than kill him. It’s not a particularly complicated theme, but it’s one that always resonates with me. Believing that redemption is possible and that people can change makes for such good storytelling, since we always hear so much news to the contrary. But here we have an excellent arc, which dramatizes redemption in contrast with fear, the thing that pulls all Epics into the darkness. So often reception and “sin”–that nebulous and often problematic concept–are utilized, usually to very little effect or insight. By using fear as the basis of evil, Sanderson creates much more interesting conversations about the nature of power and the significance of love.

I choked up at one point, when Abraham reflects on his “religious symbol”: the diamond-enclosed S of Superman, to him the promise that there will one day be good Epics to balance all the evil. It’s a quiet, profound moment that sneaks up on you. Today we have so many heroes–youtube and twitter make it possible to see more random acts of kindness and bravery than ever before–and yet we have so few heroes. It’s impossible to imagine Hercules or Medb in our world, fighting giant serpents and raising armies and generally being larger than life. They’ve become stories and gods, distant and illusory, worthy of our veneration but not our everyday consideration.

For copyright purposes, this is never actually named in the books.

For copyright purposes, this is never actually named in the books.

But superheroes…we talk about them all the time. We’re engrossed by their exploits, but not so humbled by their greatness that we don’t argue with and about them. They have a home in our hearts, not just our minds. To see the “S” deployed as a religious symbol really drives home how much superheroes have become our modern folk heroes, bridges between ourselves and the divine creatures we think we can be. I don’t mean that in the religious sense. Everyone wants greatness, secular and religious alike. Everyone wants a few moments of transcendence. Superheroes are another way we’ve found of teaching ourselves about that kind of power and what to do with it.

Between Mistborn and Reckoners, especially the endings, Sanderson is setting up a multi-planar universe that each seem to deal with a theme as well as with the various power systems and characters. (Note: I have not started the Stormlight series, this may be elucidated there. But I just can’t with the long, unfinished, emotionally significant series anymore. GRRM is life-ruiner.) I’m curious to see if his many worlds only touch tangentially, as with Stephen Kind’s ultimate canon, or if he’s setting up some kind of huge denouement and conflict, à la the Marvel cinematic universe.

Thank you, Brandon Sanderson, for these fine additions to the superhero pantheon. I look forward to keeping them close to my heart.

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