“Year of Sanderson”: “Elantris”

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“Year of Sanderson” is an on-going, monthly series that will post on the last Friday of each month in which I will cover various Brandon Sanderson-related things. This will largely be comprised of book reviews (some from his back catalog and some from the books being released this year), as well as assorted other topics like reviews of the items in the swag boxes that will be coming out as part of Sanderson’s Kickstarted campaign. Frankly, we’ll just have to see what we get from this series, very much like the Kickstarter itself!

Book: “Elantris” by Brandon Sanderson

Publishing Info: Tor Fantasy, 2006

Where Did I Get this Book:

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: 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.

Review: It is only fitting to start out this year’s series on Brandon Sanderson by reviewing his first book, “Elantris.” Like many people, “Elantris” wasn’t the first book I read by Sanderson. Instead, I got on the Sanderson train after reading his “Mistorborn” trilogy as it was released. Then I finished it and, feeling suddenly bereft, I checked out his writing history and low and behold, there was this little stand-alone novel that had been quietly waiting in the background. After reading it, I knew that Sanderson was going to be a “go-to” author for me going forward: not only did I like it as much as the “Mistborn” trilogy, I might have even liked it more!

Elantris was once the golden light of Arelon, not only a beautiful city in and of itself, but populated by the Elantrians, a powerful group of magical individuals who grace those around them with the benefits of their abilities. But then disaster strikes: the city, and its people, crumbles and in the city’s ruined shadow clings the remnants of this once great people. Into this outskirts city, Princess Sarene arrives to marry a prince, only to find he has died, and she has been left a widow. But as she tries to navigate her new existence, she never suspects the truth: the prince is not dead, but banished having become cursed with the same cruel plague that struck down the Elantrians.

While this wasn’t my first experience with Sanderson, I do think that had I read this one first, I would have been even more on-board with his writing than I was after reading the “Mistborn” trilogy. There, Sanderson had three entire books to lay out a complex world, construct multi-layered characters, and depict all the intricate ins and outs of a very complicated magic system. But in “Elantris,” he shows all of these same skills but contained within one novel. Yes, it’s a very long novel, but it’s still one book as compared to three.

As compared to some of his later works, this one has been dinged by other reviewers for lacking the polish of his more recent books. However, in re-reading it for this series, and looking at it purely on its own merits, I don’t think there’s much I can say to that. To me, this book is a pretty perfect example of a solid, stand-alone epic fantasy. It checks off so many boxes without stumbling in any of the three major areas: world-building, characterization, and magic system. Instead, all three come through with flying colors.

In this book, the world-building and the magic system are very closely intertwined. Much of the story surrounds the mystery behind the sudden downfall of the Elantrians and the remaining curse that still randomly strikes individuals in the present day. The curse itself is quite unique, and we explore the lives of those living with it through the eyes of the Crown Prince, Raoden. We learn alongside him of the strange society that now exists within the crumbling city of Elantris where those who are cursed cannot die, but any injury they sustain will never heal, leaving them fragile and susceptible to a never-ending pain that will, eventually, drive them mad.

Outside Elantris’s walls, readers can begin to piece together more of this world-gone-wrong through the eyes of Sarene, a princess who has just arrived in this land only to find her one source of contact, the prince she had been writing, has “died” and she is now widowed and alone. Sarene is exactly the sort of heroic female character I love reading. She’s set up into a situation that is as disempowering as it can get, but she rises against these limitations and plays an integral role in the ultimate solution.

Readers who picked up this book when it was first released probably didn’t realize that they were getting a sneak peak into a toolkit that Sanderson would go on to perfect over the years. Other than his unworldly writing speed, the author is probably best known for his creative magic systems. And here we get a small peak into the beginnings of his abilities in this regard. Not only is the curse that struck the Elantrians incredibly interesting and unique, but the ultimate explanation and solution are as surprising as they are creative. It’s fantasy at its best: fun, exciting, and pushing the boundaries of our expectations.

Overall, “Elantris” is a magnificent novel. And regardless of how others may compare it to Sanderson’s incredible catalog of works, I believe it stands on its own as a near-perfect epic fantasy.

Rating 10: If an alien species came to earth and wanted an example of what “epic fantasy” is all about, “Elantris” would be the go-to pick.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Elantris” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Fantasy Books Written for Adults and Best Stand-Alone Fantasy Book.

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