Review: ‘Elantris’ by Brandon Sanderson

Elantris

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.

My high fantasy audiobook kick continues with Elantris. After I finished Patrick Rothfuss’s two books, I tweeted that I was after something similar: non-political high fantasy that isn’t too grim (ie not Game of Thrones). Pretty much every tweet recommended Brandon Sanderson. The friend who’d gotten me onto Rothfuss in the first place suggested I start with Sanderson’s debut. Since it’s that rare beast — a stand-alone epic fantasy novel — I figured, why not?

And I LOVED Elantris.

It’s a rare example of a split POV book that works — and there aren’t just two but three points of view, those of Raoden, Sarene and Hrathen. The chapters rotate between the three — in that order, something I admired from a craft point of view. Keeping the pacing going and making each thread interesting enough that you always have something to say with each character is hard, and Sanderson did an admirable job. I actually didn’t mind when it switched to a new character, where other multiple-POV books have lost me in the past. I also really liked the way he interwove the various plot threads and foreshadowing, with elements sprinkled through each character’s scenes.

As far as the characters go, Raoden is a sweetheart — a genuinely kind and positive person, something that serves him well when he gets to Elantris. Sarene is a strong-willed diplomat who is just looking for somewhere to belong. And Hrathen is the bad guy. Only actually not. In high fantasy, usually the villain is truly evil, and after Sarene’s introduction you expect Hrathen to be that sort of person. But he’s actually quite sympathetic, and his motivations are (despite the emphasis on world conquest) coming from a good place.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t villains in Elantris, just that Hrathen isn’t necessarily one of them. 😉

I also really enjoyed the magical system, which wasn’t your traditional spellbook memorisation. It’s a bit closer to the Will and the Word that Eddings used (way back when), but the word is written and precision is critical to the process.

I downloaded the tenth-anniversary edition audiobook and there was some extra content, including a deleted storyline and some discussion of the craft. I found Sanderson’s reflections on the book quite interesting. Sanderson commented that his craft has advanced since he wrote Elantris, and I can see the elements of the story that he’d probably fix if he re-did it now (such as Hrathen’s info dumps or some of the repetitive description — I lost track of the number of times we’re told that Sarene’s uncle has a scratchy voice). Still, the craft that went into Elantris is still admirable, and if he gets better in his future works, I’m definitely keen to read them next.

Four-and-a-half stars

 

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