At the start, I want to give Brandon Sanderson props just for doing what seems to be the unthinkable nowadays — writing a standalone fantasy, a book that actually comes to a close, a book that is just that, a book and not the “start of a bright new fresh trilogy that out-Tolkien’s Tolkien!” Luckily, Elantris holds up well and even merits beyond being a standalone.
Elantris is the name of the city that until ten years ago was inhabited by near-gods, ordinary people randomly transformed by the “Shaod,” some sort of semi-virus (my comparison not Sanderson’s) that struck all segments of the population of Arelon and turned them into powerful magic users. Elantris was a city of beauty and power, the capital of Arelon, until the magic suddenly disappeared a decade ago. The Shaod, however, still comes, though now it leaves the people disfigured and in seemingly eternal torment (pain of any sort remains forever, growing cumulatively in effect). Those it happens to our now shut into the ruins of Elantris and left there to suffer or die. All of this is swiftly conveyed in a two-page prologue.
The story itself centers on Prince Raoden, heir to the throne of Arelon, and his wife Princess Sarene of Teod. The two have not met — the marriage was a political one to cement relations between the only two nations that have resisted Fjordell, an expanding religious empire. At the book’s start, Raoden is struck by the Shaod and exiled into Elantris. The story that unfolds focuses on his refusal to give into the inevitable “givens” of Elantris — suffering, privation, isolation, madness. Instead he tries to build a society within the city, continuing what had been his earlier unsuccessful attempts at reformist politics. He also tries to learn just what had destroyed Elantris’ magic.
Sarene, having arrived and been told her newly-betrothed had died, stays on in Arelon and tries to strengthen the country (ruled by Raoden’s inept father) so that it may stand as a strong ally with Teod (ruled by her father) against Fiordell. Meanwhile, that empire’s chief agent, Hrathen, a high leader in the hierarchy of the Shu-Dereth faith has also arrived in Arelon, given the mission to convert the country within three months. Otherwise the empire armies will do so at the tip of the sword. Hrathen is fresh from a bloody conversion, orchestrated by him, of another country and has no desire to see similar bloodshed, ruthless as he is in his attempts to convert the current Arelon leadership (and if they won’t, he’ll change the leadership by whatever means possible). Elantris shifts among the three main characters and does so quite smoothly. The story itself is quick-paced, each one offering up its own bit of suspenseful action.
Elantris has its flaws. Raoden and Sarene are a bit too consistently good, too consistently successful. A darker tinge to each would have helped greatly. As it is, one never truly doubts whether or not they’ll succeed and succeed relatively easily. Raoden is painted as a reformer, dangerous enough that it is not beyond consideration that his own father had him “killed” so as to rid himself of a gadfly son always undermining his father’s feudal system. But there’s too much of the sense of “royal presence and power” underlying his created Elantrian society to make that description feel completely true. His study and (not really giving much away here) solution to the disappearance of the magic also seems to come too easily and its repair is pretty anti-climactic.
Hrathen’s story is the strongest of the three. Partially because his character undergoes some change, unlike the other two. Partially because he has a more complex storyline — he must use politics and public relations to battle the Princess for control of Arelon and also battle a challenging and more fundamentalist/fanatic upstart priest from within his own group who would be just as happy to see all of Arelon killed as converted. All this while he battles his own interior doubts. If the other main characters are a bit pallid, Hrathen brings a much more colorful (darkly colorful) edge to things.
The story, as mentioned, does come to a resolution, though it also leaves room for Sanderson to further explore these characters (well, some of them) and this land. If he chooses to do so, I’d pick up another Elantrian book. Elantris isn’t great, but it’s better than average and, as a first novel, bodes well for future ones. Recommended.
Upon arriving in Arelon to marry Prince Raoden, the competent and strong-willed Princess Sarene discovers that he has died. What she doesn’t know is that Prince Raoden has succumbed to the Shaod and been cast into Elantris, an uncivilized slum of undead zombie-like people who have no government and no resources. I won’t say anything more about the plot, since it’s been covered in Bill’s review (above).
I really enjoyed listening to Elantris on audio (nice production by Recorded Books) and I think it’s a great debut. Brandon Sanderson has created a couple of heroes I enjoyed spending time with, and a truly engaging story. But, Elantris had several elements that almost made me cringe:
1. Some of the “lessons” of Elantris (war is bad, zealots are dangerous, women are just as competent as men, political rank should not be determined by wealth but rather by ability, you can do anything if you try) are handled with all the subtlety of a brick to the forehead. For example, the men’s attitudes toward women, and the subsequent behavior of the women, are so ridiculously patriarchal as to be unbelievable. If a woman uses her brain, the men (and women) are intimidated by her. Therefore, Sarene hasn’t been able to find a husband. Obviously there’s a lesson here, but it loses its potency when we see that nearly all of the women actually are stupid and are just as intimidated by Sarene as the men are. Also, when Sarene mopes that she (a princess) hasn’t been able to attract a husband because she doesn’t act like they want her to, it makes me think that the men in this society are just as stupid as the women are (and why would she want to marry one of them?)…
2. …Except for Prince Raoden and Sarene, of course. They are perfect. Mary Sue and Gary Stu, actually. Though they have been dealt a bad hand, they are super-smart and super-competent. When they act, roads straighten and obstacles move out of the way. The reader has no doubt that everything will turn out right in the end, so there’s essentially no tension. However, Hrathen, the high priest who is trying to convert Arelon for his wrathful god and emperor, is a more complex character and saves this novel from feeling too simplistic.
3. I didn’t believe the political system in which people rise to, and fall from, power based on their income. How long could that kind of system work and what kind of people would go for that? Well, I guess the same sort who are intimidated by Princess Sarene… I also had trouble believing that the people who lived in Elantris never tried to better their lives before Prince Raoden showed up.
4. The writing is competent, but some of the dialogue is stilted and there are frequent uses of unnecessary explanatory narrative, such as telling the reader what something implies or when someone was “speaking for the first time,” or “declining to answer” or holding their questions or obviously unconvinced, etc. This made for some long passages (usually during meetings) where not much actually happened.
Even with all of this stuff that annoyed me all the way through, I have to say that I still loved Elantris. Mary and Gary — I mean Sarene and Raoden — are characters to care about, and that still-young-and-idealistic part of me enjoyed reading about the successes that Prince Raoden and Sarene accomplished in Elantris and Arelon. Brandon Sanderson’s greatest strength, though, is his creative magic systems. Just as in the Mistborn trilogy, the magic of Elantris is truly unique and one of the most fun parts of the book.
Why does fantasy always seem to come in trilogies or, even worse, open-ended series of six or ten or an unending number of books? Since each entry in a fantasy seems to run close to 600 pages, one more or less commits to reading at least 1800 pages when diving into a series, sometimes a wearisome prospect when all one wants to do is read something diverting. It’s not a problem limited to fantasy, but fantasy does seem especially prone to multiples. Writers complain that publishers require them to write in multiples rather than merely in 750 page blockbusters, because it’s more profitable to market three 600-page books. Art must be sacrificed for commerce.
Fortunately, authors still occasionally write stand-alone fantasies. One of the good ones in this category is Brandon Sanderson’s Elantris. Sanderson’s first novel is self-contained, even if its ending does hint at more to come in the same universe. The book is engagingly written, with plenty of intrigue, events spinning out of control, favorite characters in peril, and a magic that works rather like a science. Best of all from my perspective, one of the three primary viewpoint characters is a smart, competent woman who changes the fate of a kingdom and of her world.
Elantris begins when Prince Raoden of Arelon wakes early one morning to find that he’s been transformed while he slept. In the past, this curse would have been a blessing; now it means exile from his city into Elantris, a neighboring city when the dead live. For that is what he is now: dead. His family “buries” him — actually, some poor sap who resembles him — as his “corpse,” his heart not beating but his mind as alive as ever, is forgotten.
As Raoden is being escorted to the gates of a sort of hell, Princess Sarene of Teod, his betrothed, is arriving in Arelon to meet him. Although the marriage was arranged for reasons of state, Sarene and Raoden have been communicating through their Aons (bodiless beings who serve humans of their own accord), and Sarene is eager to meet her bridegroom. The unhappy news of Raoden’s death greets her at the dock. Sarene immediately understands that this means, for political purposes, that she is a widow, for the treaty between the two nations provided for an immediate marriage to be recognized if anything should happen to either of the parties. Although Sarene is a wholly political creature who understands and accepts her fate, she is disappointed for more reasons than one that she is a widow without ever having been a bride.
Sarene plunges into the political life of Arelon. She quickly learns of a threat from Fjordell, a neighboring country that is rabidly committed to Shu-Dereth, a religion that demands ultimate obedience. Fjordell — or, more properly, the powers that be in Shu-Dereth — have sent Hrathen, a very high priest, to convert the nation, and quickly. Arelon’s king ignores the threat, but Sarene attempts to subvert it instead, a game with the fate of nations at stake.
Raoden is busy as well, in his far more limited universe. In Elantris, he tries to bring order to chaos, to give the people there a reason to rise above their savagery. He also studies the magic that used to make Elantris run, and to determine why that magic became a curse. He does his best to resist hunger and pain, for hurts do not heal in this city.
It’s a complicated, many-stranded tapestry that Sanderson weaves in Elantris. We read chapters from the viewpoints of Sarene, Raoden and Hrathen, and learn of all manner of skullduggery, wisdom and ambition. The plot and its devices are sufficiently different from the run-of-the-mill fantasy to make this book something special; you won’t find a quest or knights or horses or dragons here, merely humans struggling in a world that happens to include magic. The writing is bright, witty and engrossing. If you try Elantris, you might start to wonder why Sanderson has since turned to the multi-volume epic himself. But you might also want to start reading those multi-volume epics.
Sanderson sets up a complex and unique fantasy world, with a magical system built on glyphs of power drawn in the air. The Elantrians were nearly godlike beings with glowing, silver skin and powerful magical abilities. Ordinary humans would sometimes randomly transform into Elantrians. But ten years before, the transformation process was twisted into something horrible: the Elantrians turned into diseased-looking horrors, their glowing, lovely city of Elantris became decayed and covered with slime, and the magic was lost.
But life goes on. And different people and factions are seeking to fill the power vacuum left when Elantris fell.
Elantris alternates between three viewpoints: Prince Raoden, who has just turned into an Elantrian as the story begins, and is thrown into Elantris to live or die; Sarene, the princess of a nearby country who had just arrived to marry Raoden, but is told he is dead; and Hrathen, the priest of a third country who is seeking to claim Raoden’s country for his own emperor, by conversion or conquest.
The stories of these three characters are intertwined, but each character has a distinct point of view and their purposes often conflict. Hrathen, the red-robed priest, was perhaps the most complex character, struggling with fears and doubts and pride.
But I actually enjoyed Raoden’s and Sarene’s parts of the story more. Raoden, especially, grabbed my interest, as well as my admiration, as he tries to deal with his terrible and painful transformation, figure out why the magic of Elantris was lost, and rescue himself and other Elantrians from the desperate existence they’ve been thrown into. And, not incidentally, get to know his fiancée Sarene (who believes he’s dead, remember) when she visits the city of Elantris. They’re arguably a bit of a Mary Sue couple, but personally I don’t mind reading about really admirable characters when it’s well done.
This was Brandon Sanderson’s first novel, and that shows somewhat. It’s a fairly lengthy novel and periodically got a little long-winded and tedious, except for the ending, which seemed a little rushed. But the sheer amount of creativity in it is impressive and I found the main characters sympathetic. Overall it kept me interested until the end. And I’ve gained a new appreciation for fantasy novels that don’t require you to read a sequel to get the whole story!