Elantris: A special stand-alone

Brandon Sanderson ElantrisBrandon Sanderson Elantris The Hope of ElantrisElantris by Brandon Sanderson

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.

~Terry Weyna

What happens after the Fall?

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!

~Tadiana Jones

Elantris — (2005) Publisher: 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.

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TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She longs to be a full-time reviewer, critic, scholar and writer, but nonetheless continues to practice law as a civil litigator in California. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, the imperious but aging Cordelia Louise Cat Weyna-White, and a forever-growing personal library that presently exceeds 15,000 volumes.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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  1. This is a book that I had a lot of issues with, but that I loved anyway.

  2. Love this book.

  3. I love this book! I’m making my brother-in-law read it now. I wish this was a series with several more books!

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