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.