Themes Explored: politics, religion, religious fanaticism, imperialism, superstition, courage in the face adversity, political marriage, immortality, magic

Synopsis: Elantris, the capital of Arelon, was built to last for eternity. Elantrians were beautiful, radiant, and benevolent beings who used their magical gifts for the benefit of everyone. The Shaod, a magical entity, elevated random people into the ranks of the most powerful beings in existence. They seemed like gods and the people of Arelon thought they would rule forever. Well forever ended ten years ago. Overnight the city of Elantris fell into decay and the Elantrians became wizened, leper-like, and powerless creatures.

Arelon’s new capital, Kae, is built in the decaying shadow of Elantris. Princess Sarene of Teod arrives for a marriage of state with Crown Prince Raoden. Instead she finds that Raoden died and she is considered his widow. This political union is meant to strength Teod and Arelon against the imperial ambitions of the fanatical Fjordell Empire. Sarene attempts to counter the machinations of Hrathen, a Fjordell high priest who was sent to Kae to convert Arelon.

Neither Sarene nor Hrathen suspect the truth about Prince Raoden. Stricken by the same curse that ruined Elantris, Raoden’s father exiled him to the dying city.  He struggles to help the poor souls forever trapped in a dead city.  His efforts trigger a series of events that might reveal the secret of why Elantris fell.

Review: This is an epic fantasy novel that, thankfully, is not the beginning of a twenty book series. Instead, it is a fully explored story contained in one volume. Elantris is Brandon Sanderon’s debut novel, so it does not have the polish of his newer works. However, the narrative is still better developed than most debut fantasy novels. Though, he does fall prey to the common mistake of telling instead of showing. This lapse in storytelling finesses means it takes the narrative a while to reach the main conflict.

The novel begins with the assumption that the reader is already acquainted with the history of Elantris. For the first half of the novel, there are only minimal hints regarding the magic and political situation affecting the main characters. Instead of focusing on fully drawing the world of Elantris, Sanderson focuses on developing the three main characters. He accomplishes this feat by writing the story using multiple points-of-view. The narrators are the exiled prince Raoden, Princess Sarene, and Gyron Hrathen.  Each character’s viewpoint is grouped into sets of three, which Sanderson refers to as triads.  Each “traid” occurs at roughly the same point in time and allows each character to give their opinion about the events of the day. While this approach gives each character a superbly rich background, it comes at the cost of pacing. Not that the story drags, it just takes a while to reach the climax.

What I like about this book is that each character is complex and sometimes unpredictable. The story allows for the main characters’ too explore their unique weaknesses and strengths. All three are put into unfamiliar situation that test their resolve. Sanderson manages to make them all feel like actual people who struggle greatly to uphold their beliefs in the midst of conflict.

Once Sanderson finally reached the main conflict, he suddenly switched his narrative style. Instead of each character getting three chapters, Sanderson switched to a slightly frantic back and forth between points-of-view. This is one of the main problems of trying to tell a multi-faceted tale in one volume, there is not enough time to tie everyone’s storyline together. Instead of trying to keep the same nuanced style, Sanderson is forced to speed up the narrative in order to reach and resolve the conflict as quickly as possible. This style change means that some of the loose ends are left unresolved. Which is slightly disappointing, I really wanted Sanderson to delve into Hrathen’s backstory.  Oh well, maybe he will write a novella discussing it one day. At least I hope he does.

Elantris is a good study in how to craft intriguing characters that inhabit a complex and fantastical world.  I think Sanderson is one of the better fantasy writers in business today. Personally, I think he is a better storyteller than Robert Jordan. The only reason I managed to finish The Wheel of Time series is because Sanderson managed to speed up the narrative and bring the story to a close. Not that Jordan was a bad writer; I just think that he sacrificed his narrative in order to philosophize. Anyways, if you have not read it yet, Elantris is a book you should add to your future reading list.