Review: Elantris by Brandon Sanderson

I’ve taken flak for not seeking out (or particularly enjoying) fantasy. I read piles of it in high school and quit after reading Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series. That series neatly encapsulates what frustrates me with this genre:

  1. A chosen one with a unique skill/ability (or too many unique skills/abilities)
  2. A chosen one whose specialness undermines the world building
  3. Stuff goes horribly wrong until a string of lucky breaks put everything right
  4. Really good guys vs. really bad guys
  5. Random repetition and gimmicky word choice: Richard is always clearing his sword in its scabbard; Jordan’s heroines are forever crossing their arms beneath their breasts. The land is called the “Realm.” Bewitched people (and sometimes dragons) are malleable when “held in thrall.” I don’t mind unusual words, but when they’re over-emphasized and affected they seem gimmicky, as though characters are allowed to act modern as they like so long as they say “Well met” as a greeting.

So why did I read a fantasy novel by Brandon Sanderson? Because I heard he writes fantasy novels that don’t give in to the common tropes and everyone seems to like him. It’s also impressive that he took over the end of the Wheel of Time series after Robert Jordan’s death—it’s hard to imagine a higher bar than finishing a series built over decades. So I picked up his first book: Elantris.

Plot Overview (without spoilers, of course)
In Arelon, a rare condition called the Shaod transforms regular people into powerful demigods overnight. After their transformation, they’re sent to live in Elantris: a beautiful city with plenty of food, medicine, and magic. Ten years before the events of Elantris, however, the Shaod backfired with no explanation. Instead of becoming demigods, the afflicted now become bruised, hungry, half-living creatures who cannot heal their bodies. Overnight, Elantris shifts from a city of plenty to a place where the cursed are walled off from the rest of the world and left to fight and starve. Prince Raoden, on the first page, wakes up to find the Shaod took him in the night. He’s dumped inside Elantris, where he spends the novel trying to solve the mystery of how a blessing became a curse. At the same time, Sarene, his fiancée, arrives in the city to learn he’s “dead” and has to deal with city politics. And a priest, Hrathen, has also come to the city to convert it, by force if need be, so that the entire world serves the same entity.

There’s a lot going on in this novel, but by rotating the chapters from Raoden, to Sarene, to Hrathen, Sanderson keeps his story tightly paced and well-controlled. There are a few cheesy moments and the general arc of the story isn’t difficult to work out, but there are some great twists along the way. It’s a fun, surprising read that’s difficult to put down. Instead of needing to read just one more chapter each time I set the book down, I wanted to read three more—one more for each character.

World Building
All points awarded. Sanderson opens with a short introduction of the good old days and the immediate contrast with the current world makes a reader ask, What Happened??

One of the praises heaped upon Sanderson is that he takes on large conflicts and writes them from small, personal perspectives. His three main characters—one in Elantris, one atop Arelon’s power structure, and one working to change Arelon—allow the reader to invest in each angle of the novel’s conflict. Elantris isn’t just about curing a magical disease, or consolidating political power, or converting a city—it’s all three. Each quest has additional urgency when the reader understands the positions of the other two.

I’d usually have a quote here, but the most illustrative ones make little sense out of context because they’re full of strange names, places, religious language, and titles. This all creates an immersive reading experience, but it took a few chapters before I could follow the plot.

I admit that I mentally referred to Raoden, Sarene, and Hrathen as Ray, Serene (occasionally Saran Wrap), and Heathen. I don’t understand why names in fantasy always sound artificial—they don’t sound foreign, they sound fake. I wonder if it’s the way they sometimes sound like they were created with a character’s attributes in mind: e.g., hissy/sharp sounds for villains, serene names for women, and so on. Full Disclosure: The fantasy “novel” I started in high school had a protagonist named Caradyn Fourthwind.

As for their personalities, Raoden and Sarene are ridiculously virtuous. In Rao’s case, it’s balanced by his circumstances because he wouldn’t stand a chance unless there was something a little extraordinary about him. If he were too different, you might not have a book. But Sarene…. I want to credit Sanderson for writing a tough, independent woman because characters like Sarene aren’t common in this genre (to my recollection). However, there’s something irritating about the emphasis placed on her pants and sword-fighting when all the other ladies wear dresses, or the way she whines about being unwanted when men are falling over themselves for her, or a moment when she’s mean-spirited without cause. There’s something about the way her Sarene-Is-Awesome moments come at the expense of others and emphasize the way she isn’t like other women as though it’s this otherness that makes her the ideal woman.

On the flip side, Raoden is also very idealized. Just as Sarene isn’t like other women, Raoden isn’t like other princes. Maybe this is the way Sanderson represents his heroes. I think the point may be that Raoden and Sarene are evenly matched and, in emphasizing this, Sanderson gives them both cringe-inducing moments.

In novels with a Chosen One, endings never feel quite right. It’s a relief to see the villain conquered, but with all the rules the Chosen One breaks just by existing, it’s pretty clear they would always save the day. Here, though, the final battles feel appropriately heavy and difficult. There’s a slightly convenient moment when reinforcements arrive just in time, but it’s a moment that’s justified by earlier actions in the text. I was very impressed by how every little detail was paid off by the end. I think the last fantasy novel I made an exception for was Game of Thrones, so Sanderson’s control over his story is very much appreciated!

Elantris is a standalone novel. There’s a book sold as “Elantris, Book 2” on Amazon, but its story is unrelated to this one. Since one of my complaints about the fantasy genre is that too many duologies have become trilogies which then become series, a self-contained story is a wonder.

Overall: 4.5 (out of 5) Highly recommended! From what I’ve heard about Sanderson, some of his other books may be technically stronger, but this one is a lot of fun. It made me remember what I used to love about fantasy novels—the feeling that anything can happen, the open creativity, and the potential for unique storytelling.

Translation: Read it.

Image credit: Amazon

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