Review: Elantris by Brandon SandersonMarch 16, 2010
What Drew Me to the Book: Brandon Sanderson’s name was seemingly everywhere when I started Follow That Raven and, as with several other authors whose work I began seeking out the last couple of years, I had heard almost nothing but praise for what he had been able to accomplish thus far. What’s more, all that I had uncovered about the books seemed to be the elements of a good story that would draw me in most: that the characters felt real and were relatable, that the stories were very entertaining, and full of unique world-building skills — as well as the rarer ability to create compelling magic systems that operated within prescribed boundaries with consequences attached — within those worlds.
Granted, it also didn’t hurt that he was fairly new on the scene (relatively speaking). I didn’t feel that the task of starting at the beginning of his works and working through them one by one nearly as daunting as some of the other authors I was interested in trying out and after enjoying his short story “Firstborn”, I was raring to get started on Elantris, Sanderson’s debut novel.
“Elantris was beautiful, once.”
The Review: I should say, right off the bat, that it was a privilege to be formally introduced to Sanderson’s work through this exceptional novel. Elantris, unlike some other works of fantasy & sci-fi in recent months that have taken a little too long to gain momentum within their narratives, I was almost immediately drawn into the story thanks (or no thanks) to the tragedy that befalls one of the three chief protagonists in the story, prince Raoden of Kae, within moments of the novel’s opening sequences. As Roaden looks out his palace window, surveying the once vibrant city of Elantris that looms on the horizon, we learn of the god-like beings who once inhabited the great city following the Shaod. These were former citizens of Arelon who were (seemingly randomly) transformed into long lived god-like creatures with silvery skin, white hair, wise beyond their years and with powers to heal the sick, transform earth’s elements into food, and perform intricate magics for the benefit of themselves and others. They had been the guides and protectors of Arelon for so long, they were loved, respected, and sought out near and far for their unique gifts.
Only something happened 10 years ago.
Elantris and her inhabitants fell to a curse that left the city in ruins and the once god-like creatures to fall into a pitiful state of near-death, though unable to die in the conventional sense, in which they resemble something much more akin to walking corpses than demigod. The power that once changed Arelon’s citizens into Elantrians with amazing abilities, now marks them with graying skin and dark splotches throughout their bodies, unable to heal themselves, and exiled within the walls of the decaying, dilapidated, city walls of the fallen city with an undying hunger and precious little food to quench their desire. Hope is gone in Elantris. That is, until Prince Raoden awakens one morning in horror to find that he too has transformed into an Elantrian, exiled to the fallen city, lost forever to the world he once knew…and the young bride to whom he was betrothed.
The novel then follows the plight (and perhaps more appropriately termed “blight”) of the former prince Raoden as he strives to survive in his new condition and surroundings, the adventures and machinations of his former bride-to-be Sarene who remains married to the prince thought dead as Arelon law dictates, and the cunning plan of a religious zealot named Hrathen who seeks to convert the city of Kae en masse before a more thorough threat from a distant land seeks extermination as a more viable option for the ‘unbelieving populace.’
Elantris is an ambitious novel from out of the gate as the story weaves seamlessly through themes of hopelessness, bigotry, oppression, politics, religion and war — yet never feels quite heavy handed as it does so, and almost always managing to entertain throughout the extended journey. Where hope could easily be abandoned at every turn, where it is expected, and at times when things seem awful bleak for everyone involved, there is always a glimmer of hope to hang on to thanks to the convictions of a handful of men and women who refuse to give in to despair. One could perhaps level the charge that such a principled world view by a few of the stories protagonists is somewhat naive and unrealistic given their situations, and at times I wondered how their actions might be received by the more cynical reader, but I was definitely buoyed up by the actions of several of the characters and if I’ve learned anything from real world history it is that good men and women are often exactly where they need to be when a hero is needed — and it is no different here.
Though always engaging, the novel really picks up at its halfway point, grabbing the reader and never letting go until the final epilogue ultimately concludes. I was on the edge of my seat as the conflict throughout the story came to a head, and I really should take a moment to praise Sanderson a little for bringing so many of the characters to life, from the main protagonists to the supporting characters, in ways that make the reader care for so many of them. For example, there is one well established character who picks up an axe near the end of the story who could easily be the main focus of a full length novel all his own, as a layer to his character is further revealed in that scene and the potential for a vivid back story is sought by the reader (certainly this reader anyway) and perhaps one day we will find out more. Additionally, the “villain” of the piece also turns out to be more than one might have initially expected and his story/perspective becomes more and more fascinating as the novel progresses. No doubt he’ll go down as one of my favorite characters in recent years and I look forward to revisiting the book again to see how later revelations cast light on his journey throughout, giving a greater insight to his actions.
The novel wrapped up nicely and as the end loomed near yesterday morning I was certainly saddened that the experience would end, which is always something of a sign of a really good book for me. Though it is worth mentioning here that one of the coolest things about this story is that Sanderson has provided his readers an awful lot of “bonus content” upon its conclusion in the form of extensive annotations, commentary, and even a bonus short story entitled “The Hope of Elantris” which can be purchased as a downloadable file for a measly .49 cents on on amazon.com, or read for an even measlier “free” price on his official website. I’ll be enthusiastically checking those out now that I’ve finished the novel and am really looking forward to the chance to dive further into the inner workings of the novel and see what else will be added to my experience with the book. Elantris was a lot of fun, and for a debut novel it was all the more impressive. So for the final verdict, definitely comes highly recommended by me.
Now, I just have to decide which Sanderson novel to tackle next. I’ve got both Warbreaker and the Mistborn trilogy patiently waiting in the wings and I’m torn as to which to start first!