Thursday, December 15, 2011

Book Review: Elantris

This past weekend, I finished reading Elantris by Brandon Sanderson, and I have to say, I was pretty darn impressed with the work from start to finish. Elantris is Sanderson's first published novel and unlike most of his other works, it is a stand alone story. It is an amazingly solid first entry and after reading it I am not even a little bit surprised that Sanderson wound up being tagged by Robert Jordan to finish the Wheel of Time series after his death. I have really enjoyed his entries into that particular series and they made me very interested to check out his own original work. I settled on Elantris as my starting point because I had heard some pretty good buzz about it, and I'll admit, I am keeping up with enough series at the moment that jumping into another one seemed a bit daunting.

Sanderson is quite lauded by the fantasy community for his extremely well-developed and detailed systems of magic. Elantris is certainly no exception to this, which is all the more impressive because the most notable thing about magic in this book is its absence.

The story takes place about ten years after the fall of the eponymous city of Elantris. The Elantrians once ruled the nation of Arelon more or less benevolently, godlike beings with vast stores of magic at their very fingertips. Despite their amazing power and superiority to the mere humans of Arelon, they did not demand to be worshipped. In fact, they were quite content to let the humans practice their own varying religions without interference. Perhaps this is because every Elantrian was once a human. The beings were not born, but rather, one night a human would go to bed and the next morning he or she would wake up transformed into an Elantrian.

Under Elantris' rule, Arelon was a very powerful and prosperous nation until something went horribly awry. In an event called the Reod, the magic of Elantris suddenly stopped working. The Elantrians, without their power, became horribly disfigured but unable to die. Their hearts stopped beating, but their bodies went on, skin shriveling up and hair falling out. Hurts and injuries could not kill them, but nor would they heal, and the pain of those hurts endured, driving those who continued under their newly cursed existence mad. When the Reod came, the servants of Elantris rose up in revolt against their transformed masters. The merchant class stepped in, taking over and organizing a new government, declaring themselves the new nobility. The city of Elantris was locked up tight, its surviving citizens left to wallow in their never-ending misery. The Shaod, or transformation from human to Elantrian, did not stop occurring, however. Now, instead of being a blessing, it had become a curse. Those poor damned souls who changed were thrown into Elantris with a single basket of food and considered dead by the rest of the world.

The story begins with Arelon's prince, Raoden, finding that the Shaod has come upon him. He is not immune to the fate of the cursed and his father wastes no time in throwing him into Elantris. Raoden must find a way to survive his new circumstances and to avoid the madness that takes his new people. On that same day, two people arrive in the city of Kae, heart of Arelon since Elantris' fall. The first, Princess Sarene of Teod, was engaged to Prince Raoden, a political match to ally her nation with Arelon. She reaches her new home to learn that she is now a widow, the stipulations of her marriage contract declaring death by either party before the wedding the same as a wedding itself. She never had the chance to meet her husband and now she must find her place in her new home without him. She is quickly given purpose by the other newcomer to the city, however. Hrathen is a gyorn, or high priest, of Fjordell, an enemy nation to both Teod and Arelon. He has been sent to convert Arelon to his religion of Shu-Dereth within three months. Otherwise, Fjordell will invade and force conversion upon Arelon in the bloodiest manner possible.

Elantris rotates fairly smoothly between the perspectives of Raoden, Sarene, and Hrathen and tells the tale of each individual's struggle to fulfill a purpose. These three characters are absolute powerhouses of charisma and the reader is quickly swept into their world, eager to find out who will succeed and who will fail, and how each person's machinations will influence the other's.

For as much as religion is a key component to the story, I felt like its touch was astoundingly subtle throughout. There were, to me, very clear parallels to the state of organized religion in our world, and its influence on the citizens and nations, but I felt like Sanderson used that more as an inspiration to this work rather than using this work as a way to preach some personal message. The characters are the true center of this tale and Sanderson has done an amazing job of giving each believable motivations and actions. None are without their flaws, but those flaws are put to masterful use in weaving these three disparate threads together. As the story progresses, those three threads do become one steady piece of fabric, too. I never felt cheated by convenient coincidences, everything felt very natural.

There is something of the traditional "hero's quest" in this story, but Sanderson manages to make it feel fresh and new. The romance and intrigue and action and friendships and journeys of discovery all manage to come across as very true. Nothing feels forced, nothing feels trite. I also appreciate that Sanderson has clear and simple answers for most of this book's mysteries by the story's end. Yet, that being said, he didn't hesitate to introduce a few new loose ends for our characters in the process of providing them with the answers they sought. I am satisfied with the loose ends, however. To me, they suggest that these characters are only just starting out as the story is ending. I am free to imagine them continuing to go on and solve their new mysteries.

The ending is still an ending, however. There is no sense that Sanderson was trying to leave the back door open for a sequel, and I am glad of it. As I told my husband, I don't think this is a book that needs to be a series. Everyone (that survived, of course) ended on  pretty high note, and I was happy with how things turned out. That being said, I would love to read another story set in this universe in some other time period, before or after the events of Elantris, dealing with other characters. I suspect that there are many interesting stories to be told about Arelon and its neighbors.

This is the kind of book that makes me excited about writing. It is so amazingly well done. I was lucky enough to meet Sanderson last year when he did a tour for the most recent Wheel of Time book's release, and I hadn't yet read any of his own stories (that was actually when I picked this book up--I am super proud to have an autographed copy). I hope he does another tour for the last book and that I might get a chance to meet him again and thank him for this amazing story. Assuming I can actually get over my fangirl shyness and form coherent words, that is.

Anyhoo, fans of fantasy and magic and well-developed worlds and characters: Elantris by Brandon Sanderson. Check it out. I doubt you'll regret doing so.

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