Elantris: Above average stand-alone

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

At the start, I want to give Brandon Sanderson props just for doing what seems to be the unthinkable nowadays — writing a standalone fantasy, a book that actually comes to a close, a book that is just that, a book and not the “start of a bright new fresh trilogy that out-Tolkien’s Tolkien!” Luckily, Elantris holds up well and even merits beyond being a standalone.

Elantris is the name of the city that until ten years ago was inhabited by near-gods, ordinary people randomly transformed by the “Shaod,” some sort of semi-virus (my comparison not Sanderson’s) that struck all segments of the population of Arelon and turned them into powerful magic users. Elantris was a city of beauty and power, the capital of Arelon, until the magic suddenly disappeared a decade ago. The Shaod, however, still comes, though now it leaves the people disfigured and in seemingly eternal torment (pain of any sort remains forever, growing cumulatively in effect). Those it happens to our now shut into the ruins of Elantris and left there to suffer or die. All of this is swiftly conveyed in a two-page prologue.

The story itself centers on Prince Raoden, heir to the throne of Arelon, and his wife Princess Sarene of Teod. The two have not met — the marriage was a political one to cement relations between the only two nations that have resisted Fjordell, an expanding religious empire. At the book’s start, Raoden is struck by the Shaod and exiled into Elantris. The story that unfolds focuses on his refusal to give into the inevitable “givens” of Elantris — suffering, privation, isolation, madness. Instead he tries to build a society within the city, continuing what had been his earlier unsuccessful attempts at reformist politics. He also tries to learn just what had destroyed Elantris’ magic.

Sarene, having arrived and been told her newly-betrothed had died, stays on in Arelon and tries to strengthen the country (ruled by Raoden’s inept father) so that it may stand as a strong ally with Teod (ruled by her father) against Fiordell. Meanwhile, that empire’s chief agent, Hrathen, a high leader in the hierarchy of the Shu-Dereth faith has also arrived in Arelon, given the mission to convert the country within three months. Otherwise the empire armies will do so at the tip of the sword. Hrathen is fresh from a bloody conversion, orchestrated by him, of another country and has no desire to see similar bloodshed, ruthless as he is in his attempts to convert the current Arelon leadership (and if they won’t, he’ll change the leadership by whatever means possible). Elantris shifts among the three main characters and does so quite smoothly. The story itself is quick-paced, each one offering up its own bit of suspenseful action.

Elantris has its flaws. Raoden and Sarene are a bit too consistently good, too consistently successful. A darker tinge to each would have helped greatly. As it is, one never truly doubts whether or not they’ll succeed and succeed relatively easily. Raoden is painted as a reformer, dangerous enough that it is not beyond consideration that his own father had him “killed” so as to rid himself of a gadfly son always undermining his father’s feudal system. But there’s too much of the sense of “royal presence and power” underlying his created Elantrian society to make that description feel completely true. His study and (not really giving much away here) solution to the disappearance of the magic also seems to come too easily and its repair is pretty anti-climactic.

Hrathen’s story is the strongest of the three. Partially because his character undergoes some change, unlike the other two. Partially because he has a more complex storyline — he must use politics and public relations to battle the Princess for control of Arelon and also battle a challenging and more fundamentalist/fanatic upstart priest from within his own group who would be just as happy to see all of Arelon killed as converted. All this while he battles his own interior doubts. If the other main characters are a bit pallid, Hrathen brings a much more colorful (darkly colorful) edge to things.

The story, as mentioned, does come to a resolution, though it also leaves room for Sanderson to further explore these characters (well, some of them) and this land. If he chooses to do so, I’d pick up another Elantrian book. Elantris isn’t great, but it’s better than average and, as a first novel, bodes well for future ones. Recommended.

~Bill Capossere (2007)


 

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.

~Kat Hooper (2010)

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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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is lately spending much of his time trying to finish a book-length collection of essays and a full-length play. His prior work has appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other journals and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of several Best American Essay anthologies. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, co-writing the Malazan Empire re-read at Tor.com, or working as an English adjunct, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course, the ultimate frisbee field, or trying to keep up with his wife's flute and his son's trumpet on the clarinet he just picked up this month.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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2 comments

  1. Anonymous /

    This book was great! I am so glad to hear it is in audio. It is a book worth hearing or reading. The magic system is great, as usualy from Brandon. :)

  2. All of Brandon Sanderson’s work is available on audio! :thumb:

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