I started to write a single paragraph for this review but ended up with a lot more to say.
Elantris by Brandon Sanderson was the fifth novel he wrote but the first one that he published. His second published book, Mistborn, was actually the 14th book that he wrote, if I’m not mistaken. It’s obvious, having read his Mistborn series (which are absolutely brilliant) that a great deal of time (and skill development) has passed between this book and those.
Elantris flows smoothly in most places and almost always makes sense but it feels a little less clunky by comparison. It has all the things that Sanderson does well. The magic system is beautifully designed (and unique – this is sort of his trademark), and makes sense in the world, though we hardly get to see it used at all. Sanderson always has magic systems that almost feel like a real-world science in their logic and design. Things make sense, there is no ‘well, it’s magic’ explanation. The build-up is slow followed by a break-neck ending (dubbed the Brandon Avalanche by his friends). This is another of his trademarks and one that he’s trying to change. I guess some people want their climaxes spread out more, instead of happening on top of each other. It certainly makes for an exciting ending. There are always mysteries that make sense and are (mostly) still surprising. Some of them are character revelation, some of them are plot twists, some of them are minor, some completely turn the story on it’s head and shove the reader down a roller-coaster path they didn’t know they were headed towards. Characters are beautifully realized, if a little unrealistic. The good guys seem a little too good and too successful. The antagonists, however, are also sympathetic, which makes for an interesting twist of emotions – I wanted Hrathen to fail while I felt cheered by his successes.
The slow build-up is a little too slow in parts. The made up languages in the book give it an unnecessarily steep learning curve that I am of two minds about. At the beginning of the book I hated it and kept saying why doesn’t he just use the English equivalent. Later, when I was used to the words, they gave more poignancy to certain scenes that would not have been there had the English been used instead. I know some people are turned off by a plethora of made up words, especially the ones that are hard to pronounce – which almost all of these are – so I think the book might have been easier for people to get into had they not been there. On the other hand, they improve certain scenes, making them much more powerful.
I think the most interesting part of the book is the strict structure of the chapter organization. First there is a chapter from Raoden’s point of view, then there is a chapter from Sarene’s point of view, then from Hrathen’s point of view, rinse, and repeat, ad nauseum. This allowed Sanderson to do some beautiful things with pacing in parts of the book but it slowed most of the book down to a crawl. Raoden would be fighting for his life while Sarene was teaching a bunch of court women how to fence and Hrathen was brooding in the shadows and plotting the demise of all. Hrathen, for much of the book, spends all his time musing, brooding, wearing armor and plotting. This kind of strict structure is difficult to do and make it feel realistic (each chapter in a ‘triad’ takes place at the same time), and not repetitive. The events have to be carefully planned out so that each character has something plot-related and interesting happening in each triad. Sanderson pulls it off, barely. It lurches in places, hits bumps in others, but he is able to steer the story back onto the trail.
Sanderson seems to be very interested in the idea of gods. Each of his books deals with them in a different way. In his first Mistborn books he portrays a world where the god of the people lives among them and is more of a dark tyrant than a benevolent father. The other books in the series pursue different questions about the effects that religion and gods have on people. In Elantris he is asking what would happen if the city of the gods suddenly went dark and the gods turned into hideous zombies. Where would religions go? What would it do to the faith of the people who had spent their lives knowing that these gods were over there? You can go visit them if you want. And now they’re gone. I haven’t read Warbreaker yet but I understand that it has some similar dealing with gods and their power.
This is a fascinating topic to me also – perhaps because we have the same religious background. Gods in fantasy tend to follow two different paths. There are the gods of David Eddings books that are extremely powerful children of the creator of the world but not all-powerful, or all knowing. In fact some of them are quite naïve at times – very much like the Greek, Roman, and Norse gods. And then there are the gods of Kate Elliot and Tad Williams, which are nebulous in their non-presence and so obviously a Christian allegory that it might as well be called Christianity. Different authors do different things but most gods in fantasy are either obviously Christian or have Greek or Norse influence. The other option is to have no religion whatsoever, which to me feels false – people make religions, we need something to believe in. Anne MacCaffrey, Terry Brooks, Terry Goodkind and so many others (J. K. Rowling – though this feels like less of an oversight for her since the books take place in modern England where a great deal of religion is totally forgotten) neglect religion in their books. Robert Jordan plays the Christian allegory with the Creator being a nebulous god that the people pray to but nobody expects Him to do anything. Steven Erikson has a huge pantheon of gods that control warrens that are linked with elements such as fire, shadow, light, darkness, healing, etc.
What Sanderson is doing feels like something new but with enough familiarity to not be weird. The former gods of Elantris sounded very much like the gods of the Greeks. They resided in their glowing city and people could come to them for healing, for food, for judgment. But, there is something different about them. Their power comes from their writing system, AonDor, and anybody taken by the disease that turns people into gods can learn to use it. Hence, when Elantris falls, people taken by the disease now turn into the same zombies that the former gods became.
I’m excited to see what Sanderson will do with these concepts in future books. He’s successfully turned the ideas of fantasy gods on their heads in at least four books that I have read and I’d like to see it continue. It’s a theme that runs throughout but never feels like it’s being reused because it’s done completely differently each time. It’s a multifaceted theme and Sanderson is intent on exploring each of its facets.
The last fifteen to twenty percent of the book is where the proverbial feces and fans statement could be inserted. People die, countries fall, and characters are redeemed. The ending is happy for some characters, tragic for others.
I would recommend reading this book if you want to – the ending is very good – but I would start with Mistborn if you really want to see what Brandon Sanderson is capable of.