Josh’s Review – “Elantris” by Brandon Sanderson

Elantris, published in 2005, is Brandon Sanderson’s first novel.  Since then, Sanderson has become pretty popular through both his novel releases (the Mistborn trilogy, Warbreaker, The Way of Kings) and his relatively recent job as the author who will finish Robert Jordan’s epic Wheel of Time series.  Sanderson also co-hosts a podcast for writers called “Writing Excuses.”  The dude has sort of permeated the fantasy literature world, and it sounds like he has plans to stay.  Not long ago he announced the publication date of A Memory of Light, the final book in the Wheel of Time series, and he has already (implicitly or explicitly) noted other projects to keep him busy, such as a supposed two-part sequel to Elantris and the continuation of his Stormlight Archive series (of which The Way of Kings is the first book).

Elantris is a single story told through three distinct POV characters: Raoden, Sarene, and Hrathen.  The story circles around Elantris, once a grand and magical city home to powerful, beautiful gods, but now home only to those who have been affected by the terrible ailment that brought the Elantrians to their knees 10 years before the beginning of the novel.  Raoden and Sarene were to be married, him the crown prince of Arelon, her the crown princess of Teod, but Raoden awakens at the beginning of the book after being struck by the Shaod, the terrible malady of the Elantrians, and he gets thrown into the walled-in ruins of Elantris before anyone can see what has happened to their prince.  Sarene arrives shortly thereafter, intent on marrying her prince and starting her new life in Arelon, but she is forced to begin playing the dangerous political games of the Arelon court alone.  Meanwhile, Hrathen, a zealous priest, has entered the city with a timeline of three months to convert the Arelon people before they are wiped out by the armies of his religion’s warlord.  Throw in a neat magic system, some really extensive worldbuilding/naming, and you pretty much have Elantris.

If the above sounds sort of overly complicated and busy, that’s because it is.  My main complaint with this book is that Sanderson spends a little too much time on the worldbuilding.  And whereas something like this is totally great in a world like Pat Rothfuss’s, it gets a little old here, and it’s because Sanderson spends more time categorizing things than he does creating them.  I’m totally fine with a really complex political system or a super in-depth geographic model, but when everything has a completely new, hard to pronounce, proper noun name, it starts to get in the way of the story.  I spent probably the first 200 pages or so trying to get everything straight in my head, not because it didn’t make sense, but because there was a new proper noun for everything.  Creating your own world is cool, and Sanderson is great at the construction business, but the relentless crazy naming gets a little rough.  I was able to get a handle on it eventually, but after 200 pages of trying to remember what the difference is between the Reod, the Shoad, AonDor and how to distinguish between Roial, Eondal, Ahan, and all of the other relatively similar political players, I didn’t feel like I was able to get the fullest reading experience.

My only other real complaint regarding Elantris has to do with certain character motivation stuff.  Sarene, from the moment she arrives in Arelon, takes it upon herself to become a major political player, and she is quick to choose allies as well as adversaries, and I was confused through the whole book as to why she was so actively antagonistic toward certain characters/institutions.  It became clear pretty quick that she was doing the things she was doing just because “that’s the way she is,” and once I gave up on trying to understand her motivations, I could just marvel at her smarts and know-how, but the whole motivation thing put a little hitch in my giddyup for most of the book, and it kind of soured the narrative for me just a bit.

All of that being said, I generally liked Elantris, and I can like it even more knowing that this is Brandon Sanderson’s debut novel.  Like I said, he’s good at that world building stuff (even if he names things like a 13-year old fanboy), and he’s also really good at plot construction.  The three separate POVs have a really nice way of moving around each other throughout the novel until they really collide at the climax.  And, I know I say this often, but it’s nice to read an author who has obviously read around in his or her genre.  Sanderson is obviously a big fan of fantasy and he pretty obviously knows the genre, with all of its quirky personality characteristics, really well.  As a novel, I liked Elantris, and as a first novel by one of fantasy’s up-and-coming authors, I can say I really liked it.

Elantris gets four slices of lasagna out of five.

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