Following the resounding success of my Locus Quest, I faced a dilemma: which reading list to follow it up with? Variety is the spice of life, so I’ve decided to diversify and pursue six different lists simultaneously. This book falls into my GIFTS AND GUILTY list.
Regardless of how many books are already queued patiently on my reading list, unexpected gifts and guilt-trips will always see unplanned additions muscling their way in at the front.
Sanderson is fast becoming one of my favourite fantasy writers. He’s not the ‘best’ fantasy writer (or the most gritty, imaginative, revolutionary or whatever). But I think Sanderson offers the most accessible, enticing and addictive reading experience in modern fantasy. I’d previously read his original Mistborn trilogy (but not yet his Alloy of Law continuation) and now Elantris too – and all four books went down smoooth. You’re hooked before you realise it, they’re damn difficult to put down, and the pages seem to fly by in a blur.
I have to single out his magic systems for praise. It’s easy to fall back on fantasy clichés – magic wands, magic spells, magical potions, magical creatures, etc. It’s far harder to build a magic system from the ground up, sort of twisting the underlying physics of a world. Mistborn uses a magical system based on consuming metal, and Elantris uses a magical system based on drawing glyphs in the air. Broadly speaking, after building a functional world on his new system, Sanderson then crashes the system and sets his stories in the chaos that follows.
The city of Elantris has fallen. Ten years down the line, what was once the glowing home of demi-gods, home of wonders and miracles, is now a rotting prison city for cursed half-mad immortals. The empire to which Elantris was the capital has fractured and splintered, threatened by their fanatical religious/military neighbours.
We come into this world from three perspectives:
Raoden is prince and heir to the Kingdom. He awakes to find himself taken by the magical illness which dooms him to banishment in Elantris.
Sarene is a princess, due to marry Raoden (who she’s never met) to form an alliance between the two Little Kingdoms in the face of the Evil Empire. Her ship arrives and she learns her fiancé is dead – the truth has been swept under the carpet.
Hrathen is the most unusual character – a senior priest for the Evil Empire, sent to the Kingdom to convert it peacefully to their religion before a deadline – if he fails: war.
The story cycles between the three characters, chapter after chapter and gives the telling a strong, steady pace and rhythm. Each of the characters is strong, wilful, passionate, flawed and likeable.
I’m torn over Raoden. His storyline focuses on what life is like is Elantris and his efforts to restore peace and order there, and then to discover why Elantris fell and how to reverse that. This is the main thrust of the fantasy, so the ideas here are superb, but for Raoden himself it all seems a bit too easy.
Sarene takes the detective roll. Legally, she’s already married to the ‘dead’ Raoden, so she arrives as a widow in a foreign court which excludes women from authority. She’s trying to discover what the hell is going on and to foil Hrathen at the same time.
Hrathen was my favourite character, and he provides all the intrigue outside of Elantris. He’s the baddie (trying to overthrow the king and put a convert on the throne, and turn the citizens against Elantris as monsters on their doorstep) but he’s also a goodie (trying to convert the kingdom peacefully before his nation’s semi-demonic army arrives and crushes them). He’s cunning and cool under pressure, moral but doubting his faith, and follows a strong transformational character arc.
There are a couple of downsides worth mentioning:
It’s a touch clunky in the way the three main characters all see what’s going on in the kingdom more clearly than everyone else. It’s like they’re the only bright, level headed people in that whole land – everyone else is either a bit dumb, or just lacking in initiative.
It’s kind of cartoony in how clearly delineated the different factors are. This isn’t exactly a bad thing – but it is simplistic, which makes it easy to be dismissive if you come to if from some complex, morally ambiguous, fantasy reading.
Overall, Elantris is a really enjoyable book which, as a stand-alone fantasy, doesn’t require further instalments to reach a satisfying conclusion. I can happily recommend for jaded fantasy fans looking for a light and tasty snack, and those with only an occasional interest in the genre simply looking for a good book.
After this I read: The Confusion