Upon arriving in Arelon to marry Prince Raoden, the competent and strong-willed Princess Sarene discovers that he has died. What she doesn’t know is that Prince Raoden has succumbed to the Shaod and been cast into Elantris, an uncivilized slum of undead zombie-like people who have no government and no resources. I won’t say anything more about the plot, since it’s been covered in Bill’s review (above).
I really enjoyed listening to Elantris on audio (nice production by Recorded Books) and I think it’s a great debut. Brandon Sanderson has created a couple of heroes I enjoyed spending time with, and a truly engaging story. But, Elantris had several elements that almost made me cringe:
1. Some of the “lessons” of Elantris (war is bad, zealots are dangerous, women are just as competent as men, political rank should not be determined by wealth but rather by ability, you can do anything if you try) are handled with all the subtlety of a brick to the forehead. For example, the men’s attitudes toward women, and the subsequent behavior of the women, are so ridiculously patriarchal as to be unbelievable. If a woman uses her brain, the men (and women) are intimidated by her. Therefore, Sarene hasn’t been able to find a husband. Obviously there’s a lesson here, but it loses its potency when we see that nearly all of the women actually are stupid and are just as intimidated by Sarene as the men are. Also, when Sarene mopes that she (a princess) hasn’t been able to attract a husband because she doesn’t act like they want her to, it makes me think that the men in this society are just as stupid as the women are (and why would she want to marry one of them?)…
2. …Except for Prince Raoden and Sarene, of course. They are perfect. Mary Sue and Gary Stu, actually. Though they have been dealt a bad hand, they are super-smart and super-competent. When they act, roads straighten and obstacles move out of the way. The reader has no doubt that everything will turn out right in the end, so there’s essentially no tension. However, Hrathen, the high priest who is trying to convert Arelon for his wrathful god and emperor, is a more complex character and saves this novel from feeling too simplistic.
3. I didn’t believe the political system in which people rise to, and fall from, power based on their income. How long could that kind of system work and what kind of people would go for that? Well, I guess the same sort who are intimidated by Princess Sarene… I also had trouble believing that the people who lived in Elantris never tried to better their lives before Prince Raoden showed up.
4. The writing is competent, but some of the dialogue is stilted and there are frequent uses of unnecessary explanatory narrative, such as telling the reader what something implies or when someone was “speaking for the first time,” or “declining to answer” or holding their questions or obviously unconvinced, etc. This made for some long passages (usually during meetings) where not much actually happened.
Even with all of this stuff that annoyed me all the way through, I have to say that I still loved Elantris. Mary and Gary — I mean Sarene and Raoden — are characters to care about, and that still-young-and-idealistic part of me enjoyed reading about the successes that Prince Raoden and Sarene accomplished in Elantris and Arelon. Brandon Sanderson’s greatest strength, though, is his creative magic systems. Just as in the Mistborn trilogy, the magic of Elantris is truly unique and one of the most fun parts of the book.