Elantris -- Brandon Sanderson
Book 1 of Elantris
**Elantris is also part of The Cosmere universe where a select few of Brandon Sanderson's high fantasies take place. All of these books may not be interconnected, story-wise, but they all share a single creation myth and cosmology. (source: Goodreads)
**See also: http://stormlightarchive.wikia.com/wiki/Cosmere
I had so many thoughts about this book, but I really wasn’t sure how to express them properly (as if I ever do). I had to sit on these thoughts for a while and had hoped to have some sort of review concocted within a week or two. Needless to say, this review is long overdue.
Overall, while I had some hang-ups about some of Elantris’s progression and the separate conflicts that dominated the book itself, everything seemed to tie together extremely well in the conclusion (as has been the norm for a Brandon Sanderson novel)--while you might think these threads aren’t significant or related, they very quickly prove you wrong in the end.
Elantris is Brandon Sanderson’s debut novel (so I’ve read), and for a debut novel, Sanderson creates a really amazing world with colorful characters and a rich, extensive culture of people and history. Even parts of the conflict could be compelling if I cared enough about politics to really get into it. Any doubts I might have had about how much I would end up liking Elantris quickly went away as the story drew to a close. While I might have gotten a bit impatient with some parts of the story line, the twists and turns, the climax, and the ending of the book earned all of my attention and excitement and awe right back.
The Official Story Blurb:
Elantris was the capital of Arelon: gigantic, beautiful, literally radiant, filled with benevolent beings who used their powerful magical abilities for the benefit of all. Yet each of these demigods was once an ordinary person until touched by the mysterious transforming power of the Shaod. Ten years ago, without warning, the magic failed. Elantrians became wizened, leper-like, powerless creatures, and Elantris itself dark, filthy, and crumbling.
Arelon's new capital, Kae, crouches in the shadow of Elantris. Princess Sarene of Teod arrives for a marriage of state with Crown Prince Raoden, hoping -- based on their correspondence -- to also find love. She finds instead that Raoden has died and she is considered his widow. Both Teod and Arelon are under threat as the last remaining holdouts against the imperial ambitions of the ruthless religious fanatics of Fjordell. So Sarene decides to use her new status to counter the machinations of Hrathen, a Fjordell high priest who has come to Kae to convert Arelon and claim it for his emperor and his god.
But neither Sarene nor Hrathen suspect the truth about Prince Raoden. Stricken by the same curse that ruined Elantris, Raoden was secretly exiled by his father to the dark city. His struggle to help the wretches trapped there begins a series of events that will bring hope to Arelon, and perhaps reveal the secret of Elantris itself.
As I stated, I’m no good at expressing my thoughts for something this epically good. So in the long run, I just opted for two very personally opinion-based lists on what I liked and what I didn’t like. It wasn’t easy to narrow down a lot of things, as I had actually sat down and done a random freewrite of the thoughts going through my head about the three main characters of Elantris. I ended up with three pages of repetitive thoughts which I could very readily sum up in a few short bullet-points without too much dramatic or boring detail.
What I Liked:
- The world building was awesome! If I’ve had read more of Sanderson’s books instead of just the Mistborn Trilogy and Steelheart, I might even say that the world building was Brandon Sanderson epically awesome! But I don’t know if I qualify to make that statement since it’s not like I’m a seasoned high fantasy reader nor an expert on Brandon Sanderson novels.
Nonetheless, I found Elantris to have a very creative world with great attention to detail to the people, the cultures, the history, and even a lot of the backstory. It’s written very well without seeming like it contained a giant prologue of info dump or textbook style history lessons.
- The “Elantrian Mystery” story arc part of the book was my more favorite conflict in Elantris.
I’m going to admit that the other parts of the book (with Sarene and Hrathen as the narrative POVs) didn’t grab my attention as much as the mystery behind the fall of Elantris did (with Raoden’s narrative POV).
Elantris can easily be construed as being two different storylines (three if we really want to split hairs, but Sarene and Hrathen are actually working alongside one single conflict anyway). We have the mystery of why Elantris is now in ruins, and then we have the political struggles of Arelon and the political games that Sarene and Hrathen are both playing as a bid for power in Arelon.
The parts depicting the Elantris mystery was intriguing and hooked my attention from the start.
In contrast, the political posturing between Sarene and Hrathen felt tedious and started getting a bit frustrating for me to follow. It felt like filler material, conveniently used as a device for the reader to get to know what’s going on with Sarene and Hrathen since neither can really have a storyline with Raoden (who is trapped in Elantris), so that we can see that Sarene and Hrathen are also important characters.
Again, both storylines converge in the end anyway and you realize that, yes, these characters and their political posturing WAS pretty important in light of the bigger picture.
- I liked Sarene in that she’s strong, independent, competent, witty, and take-charge and feisty. And she’s well-liked. A classic Mary Sue. (More on her later on the flip-side of the list though.)
- Raoden’s ability to defuse all of his problems was pretty admirable as well. And he’s also that competent, intelligent, take-charge, witty Mr. Perfect. In a way.
- Hrathen, though… Hrathen was surprisingly the more complex and interesting character of the three (of all the characters in the book). I was indifferent to him at first in that “he’s the main antagonist so I’m automatically going to discount him” sort of way. But by the end of the book, I found him to be much more interesting than the rest of the characters even though he’s the antagonist of the story, because he’s much more complex than I had given him credit for (and much more complex than the other characters, period).
What I Did Not Like:
- There were moments when the story dragged. As awesome as the book was, I DID fall asleep at least once during some of the Sarene-and-Hrathen-political-games story arc. I’m really sorry. I’m sure a lot of people probably find the political aspects of high fantasy interesting, but I’ve always been a “zone out” type of person when it comes to reading about politics. That’s my problem and my preference and nothing to do with the devices nor the author nor the book.
I’m more of an adventurous journey type of girl when it comes to high fantasy.
But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t admire Sarene her ability to take charge and play those games with Hrathen. Nor did it keep me from feeling a little bit of interest in what each character’s next move would be to counter each other--there were some points that I did find interesting.
- And thus, in my mind, too much of the book focused on the political posturing between Sarene and Hrathen and their respective parties of followers outside of the Elantrian city walls. It was fun, in some ways, but instead, I would have liked to focus more on the goings-on within the fallen city, and the intrigues of Raoden rebuilding a civil society from ruins while trying to solve the mystery of why Elantris suddenly lost all of its power ten years prior to the current storyline.
Yay for mystery investigations of all kinds!
- Sarene’s Mary Sue characterization coupled with some of her own personal actions brought me to exasperated frustration at times. It got to a point where I was starting to get annoyed with her and would have really disliked her if she weren’t so competent and intelligent and strong and witty and well-liked.
The fact that she’s good at everything except the traditionally “feminine” tasks and activities made her fairly standard as the typical Mary Sue character of any and all novels. Because, why is that such a standard necessity in most female heroines anyway? And then, even though she’s near perfect , she’s still not quite perfect; she’s only perfect enough to be “better” than all the other women in the entire book even if not any of the men.
It makes me roll my eyes, because this occurs all too often in a lot of stories. Make the main female character stand out by being the only female character who is strong, independent, witty, intelligent, forward-thinking, etc., etc., etc… Because the world in one fictional story is much too small for there to be one more female character with those same attributes. Because it makes her special.
She has to be passably good at everything, but in the end, there is always another man in the story who is better than her at any specific activity. It rankles, really…
What really gets me going, however, is that, for all of Sarene’s stances and talks about being an independent woman and being forward-thinking and not being restricted by gender defining roles… she spends a lot of time letting herself be defined by the men around her. She leaves her home kingdom because she can’t find a suitable husband because no one will have her because she is different than other women because she is more independent and prefers leading a kingdom and dealing in politics rather than attending balls or fishing for wealthy husbands or finding the latest fashions. She defines herself as either “the king of Teod’s spinster daughter” (who is in her mid-twenties, BTW) or as “the widow of the prince of Arelon”.
How about being known as a princess? How about being known simply as Sarene? She practically insinuates that there is no life for her back in Teod because she can’t find a man to spend the rest of her life with. Not because people find her strangely too “modernistic” to befriend or understand her. Not because she’s respected as a leader and a princess even if she’s not on friendly terms with the people around her because of her penchant for intelligent discussion or anything not quite affiliated with what other women tend to like doing. Her final straw for leaving Teod and pursuing a new life in Arelon as the wife of a dead prince was because she knew she’d never be able to find a husband in her own country.
And she spends a pretty good chunk of her time moping about her luck in romance and in men!
Frankly, I was just a little disappointed in that, really. Because for all the good light cast on forward-thinking women, and independent women, and strong and confident women in this book, it still didn’t stray far from defining the main female character based on the men around her. I liked that Sarene was too different to be the norm, but I did not like that SHE herself let it become a crippling feature only because it kept her from finding a husband. It probably hadn’t meant to come off that way, but in Sarene’s eyes, her worth was influenced by whether or not she’d be able to find an acceptable husband.
I just couldn’t, with that.
- Raoden is The Chosen One who is the answer to all of life’s questions and the world’s problems. As simple as that, he is ultimately the most perfect character in the entire book, right next to Sarene. He never made any mistakes. He solved all the problems. He had a solution for everything. He had a knack for always seeing the bigger picture. And even when something DID go wrong and it could have been Raoden’s fault and he does take responsibility for it, the resulting turn of events still manage to work in favor of his long-term strategies and plans for Elantris.
Raoden is good at everything. And not in the whole “just good enough as to not be entirely perfect” way that Sarene is good at everything. He is actually good at everything. And he knows everything.
He’s practically an all-knowing god. He might as well be since he was supposed to have become a god-like Elantrian if not for that mysterious downfall that took place ten years ago.
The bottom line is, Elantris is well-written, very enjoyable, and pretty damn good. Brandon Sanderson has wonderful creative imagination, and I will continue to pick up his books as my mood dictates. And even if, in the end, I had some rants to go with this book, I don’t deny the fact that it is one of the better books I’ve read this year.
This book is a pre-chosen participant in the following Reading Challenge(s):