My journey through the entire Brandon Sanderson pantheon continues with the author’s first published novel: Elantris. Brimming with typical Sanderson flair, Elantris set the stage for his epic tales to come while carving out a well-earned place on any Brandy Sandy Fandy’s shelf. Though it’s not his strongest work, Elantris is a triumphant story of a kingdom on the brink of destruction and the people who could either heal it or help it become rubble.
The City of Elantris was once home to godlike beings who shimmered with a divine illumination and wielded immense magical powers. Elantrians could heal almost any wound, turn garbage into gourmet delicacies, and travel long distances with a wave of their hand. The best part? The Shaod, the transformation into an Elantrian, could happen to anyone at random. The surrounding cities looked to Elantris as a cultural hub, an epicenter of cultural growth, and a place where you could get any ouchie healed with magic. But 10 years ago, the Reod destroyed Elantris. The Elantrians’ bodies blackened and decayed, reducing them to decaying, pain-addled beings with full cognition…and full knowledge of their pain. Suddenly, the Shaod was something to be feared. The surrounding cities fell quickly, with only the city of Kae left standing. Meanwhile, Kae exists under a tenuous leadership structure. King Iadon elects nobles based on their economic standing, creating a capital-driven society in which only a select few can rise to the top…sound familiar?
Elantris follows three intertwined points of view:
- Prince Raoden, hear to King Iadon. Raoden is thrust into Elantris after undergoing the Shaod.
- Princess Sarene of Teod, engaged to marry Raoden and legally wed to him despite his supposed death, according to the law of the land.
- Hrathen, a priest of Shu-Dereth tasked with converting Arelon (home of Elantris and Kae) to his branch of the religion by any means necessary.
Deep breath…we made it. The ~600 pages of Elantris pack a punch. The book resounds with political intrigue, magical mysteries, and classic Sanderlanche crescendo to an explosive conclusion. Elantris reads like a Sanderson charcuterie board. Tasty morsels abound, and the flavors combine to please the palate, but you still need an entree to fill your belly afterward. In other words, there’s a lot of fun, interesting stuff contained within the sotry of Elantris, but the book doesn’t feel as fleshed out as Sanderson’s other work. That’s not to say it’s vapid by any means…it feels unfinished, like the broad strokes are there but the picture has yet to form.
While Elantris bears signature Sanderson stamps, other elements read as though they’re in development rather than fully fleshed out. I can give this a pass to an extent–first published novel and all–but generally they resulted in Elantris resting on my metaphorical “lower-tier Sanderson” shelf.
Look to the magic system, replete with various terms and names. It can be summed up as AonDor, a combination of forces that makes the world tick. Think the Force. Pre-Reod, Elantrians could channel the Dor to various ends. But by nature, Elantris stems the flow of information about this magic system. Because the Reod happened, Elantris’ magic has disappeared. Learning what happened to it and getting the magic back is a key facet of Raoden’s story. Compared to Mistborn, in which the main character spends entire books learning the magic, Elantris feels magically empty. As a core narrative mystery, the magic feels compressed into a mere plot point instead of a core factor that influences the events of the story. Some may prefer the mystery that comes attached to the AonDor, but I felt…cheated? It’s a stylistic choice by Sanderson, but it didn’t quite hit the mark for me.
Meanwhile, Elantris’ characters are somewhat of a mixed bag. Sarene stands out, and her arc has bears certain similarities to Vin’s story in Mistborn. She struggles to earn respect in the political world despite her inherent talents, and she’s constantly toeing the line between “traditional” womanly duties and the political world dominated by men. Sarene fights for respect, and rightfully earns it from many. Her story is further complicated by her lawful marriage to a man presumed dead. Without that political anchor in her life, every interaction with Arelish nobility is an uphill battle.
Raoden and Hrathen have ups and downs, and I’m torn on whether I thoroughly enjoyed either arc. Raoden’s growth is couched in the mystery of Elantris, which is consistently more interesting than his “I am a good leader because everyone says so” vibe. Raoden is a vehicle for a story more interesting than his own personal journey, and I’m okay with that. I’m not hankering for more from him, though. Hrathen has some intense and captivating moments. He wavers in his faith even as he tries to convert an entire nation. His final arc, though interesting, is rushed to advance the plot. That’s a recurring issue. Sanderson spends full swaths of Elantris’
pages on minute details that tell us about the characters but do little to advance the story. So when the time comes to pony up, Elantris dumps 300 pages worth of conclusion into a 50-page Sanderlanche.
Elantris at its core is a fun and riveting tale that mixes elements of religion, politics, magic, and personal growth to middling success. Despite a few drawbacks, it still captures the reader’s attention and sets the stage for a terrific conclusion. Even though it’s one of Sanderson’s weakest, Elantris is still a strong book.