Elantris is the first published novel by Brandon Sanderson, the author who will be completing the final novel in the Wheel of Time series. Although it leaves a few questions unanswered, this is a stand alone book and no sequels are planned. While Elantris is a solid debut and an entertaining story, it never rises above readable to the level of exceptional.
The Shaod, a mysterious transformation that turns an ordinary person into an Elantrian, was once viewed as a great fortune. For many years the city of Elantris, gathering point and namesake of the Elantrians, reflected this great fortune as those changed by the Shaod gained godlike abilities of intelligence, healing, and magic. But ten years ago the blessing suddenly reversed and the Elantrians were transformed into hideous beings that look like animated corpses. They were no longer able to heal from any injury or practice magic. Their hearts ceased to beat and even though they no longer needed to eat, the constant hunger drove them into a state of inhuman madness.
Prince Raoden of Arelon awakens only a few days before his wedding to Princess Sarene of Teod to find he has been transformed. His fate is the same as any other person taken by the Shaod – he is thrown into Elantris to fend for himself among its factions of gangs. The prince is proclaimed dead, and Sarene arrives in Arelon just in time for the funeral. Even though Sarene and Raoden never technically met or underwent the official marriage ceremony, the princess is considered to be married due to a clause in the contract and remains in Arelon with the king and queen. She had thought she could love Raoden from the letters they had exchanged, and so had only married him partially for the political alliance it formed between their two countries, the last two nations that had not been conquered by a religion intent on converting the entire world. During this time, a Fjordell priest named Hrathen comes to Arelon with a mission – he has three months to convince the Arelons to follow his god or their leader will slaughter them. Only Sarene sees the possible threat when Hrathen begins to decry the evils of Elantris and takes it upon herself to stop his political schemes.
This novel is not about adventuring and fighting but is about people and politics. Scheming is a favorite of mine but I found the need to discuss it endlessly and point out every little detail of what was happening and why in this novel a bit excessive. Part of this was necessary since the world is imaginary so the motivations of the different nations were not always clear, but I think it was overdone and it did not need to be spelled out as much as it was at times.
The characters were likable but lacked the depth to make them feel real. Raoden was much too perfect, with an unwavering optimism that was not believable for someone who woke up one morning to find out he was a corpse. He rarely despaired and was determined to reform Elantris and its inhabitants. While I loved Sarene, she was also much too superior to the other characters in the book – more intelligent, more witty, more liberated than the other women, and more aware of politics. Her only real flaws were that she was headstrong enough to get herself in trouble sometimes and she moped about being married to a dead guy at times. The most interesting personality was Hrathen, who became more of a gray character the further the story progressed.
From my critiques above, it may sound like I thought this book was not worth reading, but that is not the case. The fantasy world was different from a lot of what I have read and the story was engrossing other than a bit of slowness toward the middle. It just failed to go beyond the “average good” book and the flaws became more apparent after putting the book down at the end and thinking about it more. However, Sanderson seems to have overcome many of these flaws in his more recent book Mistborn: The Final Empire, the first book in his Mistborn trilogy, so if those imperfections seem too great for you but you’d like to try reading one of his books that may be a better one to start with. I did think that despite its technical flaws Elantris had a certain charm and magical feel that Mistborn: The Final Empire lacked.
Despite some problems such as unrealistic characters and too much explanation, Elantris is readable and entertaining. As a straight-forward book that does not require a lot of effort, it would perfect light summer reading for someone who needed a longer book to occupy them.