Elantris was the capital of Arelon: gigantic, beautiful, literally radiant, filled with benevolent beings who used their powerful magical abilities for the benefit of all. Yet each of these demigods was once an ordinary person until touched by the mysterious transforming power of the Shaod. Ten years ago, without warning, the magic failed. Elantrians became wizened, leper-like, powerless creatures, and Elantris itself dark, filthy, and crumbling.
Arelon’s new capital, Kae, crouches in the shadow of Elantris. Princess Sarene of Teod arrives for a marriage of state with Crown Prince Raoden, hoping — based on their correspondence — to also find love. She finds instead that Raoden has died and she is considered his widow. Both Teod and Arelon are under threat as the last remaining holdouts against the imperial ambitions of the ruthless religious fanatics of Fjordell. So Sarene decides to use her new status to counter the machinations of Hrathen, a Fjordell high priest who has come to Kae to convert Arelon and claim it for his emperor and his god.
But neither Sarene nor Hrathen suspect the truth about Prince Raoden. Stricken by the same curse that ruined Elantris, Raoden was secretly exiled by his father to the dark city. His struggle to help the wretches trapped there begins a series of events that will bring hope to Arelon, and perhaps reveal the secret of Elantris itself.
A rare epic fantasy that doesn’t recycle the classics and that is a complete and satisfying story in one volume, Elantris is fleet and fun, full of surprises and characters to care about. It’s also the wonderful debut of a welcome new star in the constellation of fantasy.
Many people complain that an author’s first book is, by far, their weakest. I usually agree, and even my hero, Brandon Sanderson, isn’t completely immune to this problem. Elantris was his first published work, and, I feel, the weakest of his novel length publications.
But take that with a grain of salt. It’s still a Sanderson. It has all of the hallmarks, all of the beauty, all of the power, that really make Sanderson worth reading.
It’s also the seventh novel he wrote, and by the time he sold it and edited it for publication, I believe he had written thirteen novels, and it shows. It is, by far, stronger than what you would typically expect to find in a debut novel.
Now, on to talking about the book itself. My biggest issue with any any Sanderson book is how they may not hook non-fans. Elantris, in particular, has an exciting prologue and first few chapters, and then there are several hundred pages where very interesting and important things happen, but you feel like you could put the book down at any point, and you’re not truly hooked until the last part, the last several hundred pages. He has talked about this strategy before, and said that it is necessary for epic fantasy length books. His YA novels have that can-not-put-down feel. I’ve seen epic fantasy done this way, though, notably by Brent Weeks and Brian Staveley, and the strategy has worked for me.
That’s not to say that that the first part of the book is boring—not even remotely. The characters are all going through interesting journeys, and Sanderson is setting them up for some truly spectacular changes and reveals by the end of the book. His character development can, at times, be a little ham-handed—it feels as if he hadn’t completely learned how to show, and not tell, us about some character traits yet.
I love the characters. Hrathen, a gyorn, or high priest of the Shu Dereth religion, has come to Elantris with the mission of converting the city in ninety days. If he fails, the armies of Fjordell will invade. He was my favorite of the main characters, for several reasons. In large part, I think it’s because I see the world the way he does. Things are meant to be calculated and done for a reason. His entire crusade to convert the people is driven heavily by his desire to save them from the destruction he knows would be caused by an invading army. Much of his faith is based on the logic of his religion, and how things seem to simply make sense.
I can’t mention Hrathen without getting Dilaf shivers. Dilaf, who serves under Hrathen, is much lower in standing in the church. Yet, his devotion outstrips Hrathen’s by tenfold, to the point that he occasionally causes Hrathen himself to question his beliefs. He is also about as close as the book comes to pure evil. Reading scenes with him just make me shiver. Hrathen is a grey character who truly believes that he can justify that what he is doing is right. Dilaf is a religious fanatic. Both are, in their own way, a fascinating study of how religion can go tragically wrong.
Raoden, the prince taken by the reod and cast into Elantris, has, perhaps, the most difficult struggle of the book. He must work constantly under unceasing pain to try to save not only himself, but also those around him. He is, in some ways, a bit too perfect. I think Sanderson overdid him a hair, and that his unflagging optimism and perseverance are a bit much. He’s too much of a Mary Sue, a perfect character with no flaws. Regardless, he’s an important and powerful character, and I love his journey as he tries to restore at least a little of Elantris’ former glory.
Saerene is the most often criticized character in the book, I feel, and I do not feel that she deserves it. She’s headstrong and willful, and I’ll admit that personally, she scares me. She’s not someone I would want to spend a lot of time around and count as a friend, because of how unpredictable, sometimes wrong, and incredibly bull-headed she can be. But I think she’s written well. Her sarcasm and attitude, the things that some people have issues with, ring true for me. I feel that she’s a well written, ahead of her time character who wants change and is going to get it, and who cares about the consequences?
Before I finish talking about the characters that I loved, I have to mention a minor character who, I have heard, is going to be one of the main characters in the eventual sequel to Elantris. (Sanderson, 8 ongoing series is a bit much, even for you…) Kiin’s son, Adien, has a special place in my heart. I won’t say too much about why, without spoiling the book, but his obsession with numbers and vital role in the pivotal ending scenes of the book are just perfect.
The plot of the book is nothing incredible for the first several hundred pages. Lots of political intrigue, plenty of twists, and the eventual looming threat of Hrathen’s invasion give it a sense of purpose. With only that, and a satisfying climax that tied up some threads, it would have been a good book. But that’s not how Sanderson does things. I am being completely serious when I say that nothing, ever, in my entire reading experience, can compare to the last 10% of a Sanderson book. It’s called the “Sanderson Avalanche”. Sanderson, with his epic scopes, manages to juggle an incredible number of threads, each complicated and confusing, all sharing a few common elements. Most authors will bring these together in a few interesting ways, and resolve the majority of them. Sanderson… Sanderson mashes them all together in what, in the hands of a less talented author, might turn into a train wreck, but in his books turns into the most awesome avalanche of constant climaxes, twisty reveals, and powerful feels. And then, just when you think it’s over, he yanks the rug out from under you again.
Elantris is no exception to this rule, and once you get to the last part of the book, I promise that you will not be able to put it down. It’s utterly thrilling and crushing, and I’m not doing it justice here. You need to go read one of Sanderson’s novels, and you need to read it through to the end. You’ll see what I mean.
Because of the character issues and generally slower pacing, I’m going to have to give Elantris four stars. That is, perhaps, because I know how much better Sanderson’s books have gotten. Still, giving one of his novels only four stars makes me feel like a traitor, and as if I should revise my opinion down of most of the other books I’ve ever read and given five stars to… Regardless, Elantris has its flaws, but if you push through to the end, you will be rewarded. I promise. I recommend it, though if you’re going to read Sanderson, I’d probably urge you to read Mistborn first; it’s a better, stronger introduction to his style.