Elantris is the debut novel from Ranting Dragon favorite Brandon Sanderson. Published in 2005, way back before Sanderson took over The Wheel of Time and became (by many people’s estimation) an overnight success, Elantris is a testament to the hard work that preceded his explosion into popular awareness. Elantris is where the publishing career of one of today’s most prominent writers began.
The great city of Elantris has fallen into decay; its god-like inhabitants, created from mortals in a transformation called the Shaod, were altered in an unexplainable event known as the Reod. Since the Reod, their magic is gone – they cannot die, nor can their bodies heal. The pain of accumulated injuries and insatiable hunger eventually drives them insane. Raoden, the prince of Arelon, is taken by the Shaod and is forced into the city to suffer with the other Elantrians, effectively dead to those outside the mysterious city. Meanwhile Sarene, Raoden’s fiancée by arrangement, has arrived in Arelon to find herself a widow bound to a dead prince she never met by an unconventional marriage contract. She quickly finds herself at odds with the nobility of Arelon and with Hrathen, a Derethi priest who has come to the city to convert or destroy it.
A stand-alone novel
Elantris is unusual in that it tells a fully contained story in one volume when a trilogy is usually the minimum for epic fantasy. Yet Elantris doesn’t feel underdeveloped. The world feels small compared to the setting of multi-volume epics, but it is certainly built sufficiently to provide for characterization through differentiated cultures. Similarly, Sanderson reveals enough about the world for the reader to feel the threat that faces it. That’s right; in spite of a strong focus on the fate of his individual characters, in typical epic fashion, the fate of the whole world is at stake.
Creative use of a rigid structure
Sanderson deliberately adopted a triad structure for his story. The three major characters, Raoden, Sarene and Hrathen, each have a viewpoint chapter in turn, essentially covering the same time period. The order never changes as the structure repeats throughout the book. Sanderson uses some interesting twists and devices to bring the characters into each other’s stories, both overtly and subtly. It allows him to insert interactions between his characters that will have their significance magnified or revealed in the following chapter. Very early in the story, for example, Sarene casually notices a man being taken into Elantris, not realizing that she is seeing the husband she presumes dead.
Sanderson does a good job of juggling and weaving together the separate storylines, ramping up the tension and expanding the scope of the story as the characters begin to look beyond themselves and their own goals.
Hits and misses
For such a strongly character-driven story it is unfortunate that only Hrathen felt truly compelling. He has an engaging back story and demonstrates genuine growth while Raoden and Sarene are just a bit too perfect and contrived. Their predicaments are equally original, one essentially a sentient zombie, the other considered married to a dead man, but they both seem so capable that there is no need for growth, just a bit of problem solving.
Similarly, while it is thoroughly foreshadowed and consistent, the resolution to the focal mystery concerning the fate of Elantris was disappointing, lacking the wow factor of similar revelations in epic fantasy tales. Nonetheless, the resolution of Hrathen’s plot was sophisticated and genuinely surprising (so much so that it overwhelmed the central plot). His story adds some brilliance to an otherwise solid, enjoyable book.
Why should you read this book?
Elantris is a good book, especially for those seeking a story contained in a single volume, but there is no doubt that his first novel isn’t Sanderson’s best. Fans can see where he began exploring the major themes and innovative magics that dominate his later works, and get a real sense of where his journey began, but readers new to his work might do better to look at the Mistborn trilogy.