Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Elantris by Brandon Sanderson - Book Review

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.

A rare epic fantasy that doesn't recycle the classics and that is a complete and satisfying story in one volume, Elantris is fleet and fun, full of surprises and characters to care about. It's also the wonderful debut of a welcome new star in the constellation of fantasy.

What drew me to this novel – other than my love for Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn books – was the premise of a city of gods, fallen into damnation and cursed for a decade. The Shaod that turned mortal men of Arelon and Teod into glowing beacons of light, magic and near-immortality has now become a curse worse than death, stripping men of everything they once had and turning them into little more than walking corpses with minds soon to snap from the pain and torment of their new bodies. From the very first chapter, I was hooked on this Elantris mythology, and the burning curiosity of why. What had happened to turn the Shaod from a magnificent blessing into a horrible curse?

The book starts with Prince Raoden in Elantris, and we learn all the horrible details of the Shaod and the once-beautiful city. It’s one of the most compelling first chapters in epic fantasy I’ve ever read, and I was hooked from the very first page until we left Elantris to focus on the politics, and the only character in the novel I was supposed to like but just couldn’t; Sarene.

Sarene is a Teoish princess bound to Arelon through her political marriage to Raoden, a man she never even gets to meet before being informed of his death by King Iadon, who is determined to hide his son’s true fate from his kingdom. She is immediately made out to be a very clever young woman, one who can play politics like a master chess player plays chess. The only thing is, I never saw her as the perfect princess Sanderson tried to make her out to be. Most of her major decisions ended badly and had to be fixed by other people, and her ingrained skepticism did nothing but cause her to give the other “good guys” extra hurtles to jump. I’d say it’s refreshing to see a main protagonist mess up politically in epic fantasy if everyone else around her weren’t so busy singing her praises and ignoring her mistakes.

Hrathen, the other character whose viewpoint we get to see from, was a very well-developed character. Sent to Arelon to convert its people to his religion in order to save them from certain doom from his religion’s armies, I couldn’t decide if I thought he was a misguided though honorable man, or a religious zealot meant to do nothing but stir up conflict until well into the last quarter of the novel. I didn’t like him quite as much as I liked Raoden, but he was definitely less annoying than the princess.

Though I really did enjoy this novel, I’ll admit that the political themes overshadowed the Elantrian storyline somewhat toward the middle and caused it to drag. With a city as full of magic and mystery as Elantris rotting just beyond Arelon, why would I want to spend a couple hundred pages reading about Sarene’s attempts to overthrow the king or her desire to teach the other women fencing? Thankfully, the story gets back on track before too long and we’re back in the thick of what makes Elantris such an entertaining read.

There were a few other minor bumps-and-jolts along the way, such as Raoden’s immediate optimism in the face of a fate worse than death, but for the most part, Elantris lived up to my high expectations and added another reason to call Brandon Sanderson my favorite epic fantasy writer to emerge in the last decade. I’d be quick to recommend it to fans of the genre, especially since it’s a rare stand-alone in a genre known for its lengthy series that require a pretty large investment from their fans.

Elantris - 4 out of 5 stars

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