#CBR5 Maneuver #7 – Elantris
Profile: Epic Fantasy
Summary: From the back cover,
“Elantris was the city of the gods. What power could have cursed it?
Raoden, prince of Arelon, was loved by all, including the princess he’d never met. Where has he gone?
Hrathen, high priest of Fjordell, will convert the people of Arelon or kill them. How will he decide?
Sarene, princess of Teod, was a widow before she was ever married. Why can stand against her?”
After Action Report:
Aside from having a pithy back cover; Elantris has a lot going for it. While it is far from the perfect fantasy novel, it does feature Sanderson’s typical strong world building, and a cast of characters that is interesting, if not actually realistic. At the same time, Sanderson’s refusal to rely exclusively on the fallback tropes of his genre keeps the book feeling fresh. Elantris isn’t as polished as some of Sanderson’s other stories, with the core mystery feeling a little underutilized, and the story dragging on just a touch too long. But at the same time, these little flaws give the story a more honest feeling than, for example, the highly polished The Hero of Ages.
The narrative of Elantris is split into three points of view with each major protagonist/antagonist getting roughly equal chapters. While Sarene, the politically savvy princess, dominates the early chapters, the core of the story belongs to Raoden. His curse and subsequent exile set up the mystery at the heart of the novel. Hrathen serves as a sort of anti-villain for the cast. As an agent of an enemy nation and their church, he is dedicated to the subjugation of Arelon, but he legitimately wants to avoid needless bloodshed and hopes to affect surrender by religious conversion rather than brute force.
Unfortunately, all three of the point-of-view characters are a little too perfect to be really effective. The ease with which Sarene manipulates the courtiers around her, and even the very clever Hrathen, undermines Sanderson’s attempts to paint her as an emotionally vulnerable girl, still reeling from the loss of her fiancé. Even when things go bad for her, the sense is that she only lost because the book would have ended if she had succeeded. Similarly, Raoden has a few too many skills in his belt. He is a competent scholar, skilled artist, crafty schemer and an extremely charismatic leader to top it all off. Combine this with an iron will and some truly staggering persistence of vision, and we stop being able to relate or sympathize with him. His transformation at the end of the book redoubles this problem.
Hrathen inadvertently becomes the most compelling character. He is a man haunted by his past deeds: the nearly single-handed destruction of an entire nation and the participation in a mysterious and horrific form of religious mutilation. His guilt and honest desire to avoid razing Elantris and Arelon, combined with his resourcefulness and skill, give him a layer of depth that the other protagonists are missing. Even his over-the-top abilities feel more appropriate, because he is forced to pit them against the overly-perfect Sarene and, more basically, because villains should be hard to overcome.
As usual, Sanderson’s skillful world building and his creative magic systems take center stage. In fact, both are critical plot elements. As with many of Sanderson’s novels, the majority of the central characters have little or no knowledge of magic, AonDor in this case, or the rules that underlie it. At the start of the novel, AonDor is nonfunctional and much of Raoden’s plot line is dedicated to finding out why it stopped working. Unfortunately, the mystery isn’t all that mysterious and most savvy readers will have figured it out long before Raoden does.
While it may seem like I have nothing positive to say about Elantris, the book is more than the sum of its parts. While many of the individual aspects of the book are lackluster, particularly under prolonged scrutiny, the sum of the experience is much more enjoyable. Raoden’s scholarly exploration of the history and methodology of AonDor is wonderful even if it stretches the suspension of disbelief a bit. AonDor itself is very interesting, blending language, art and what is essentially global feng shui into a cohesive magic system. And for all I dislike Sarene, watching her make a fool out of the sitting king of Arelon is extremely satisfying.
It is a little odd coming to the end of my Sanderson marathon with Elantris, his first book to see mass publication. Reviewing the book really felt like an exercise in redundancy, because I’ve clearly already decided that I like what Brandon Sanderson does with fantasy so of course I’m going to recommend Elantris regardless of the inevitable nit-picking. Still, there must be value in reading the breadth of an author’s work. I’m not sure what that value is yet, but I’m eagerly awaiting whatever comes next.