Elantris is Brandon Sanderon’s debut fantasy novel. It has a blurb from Orson Scott Card on its cover, to the gist that this is the finest fantasy in who knows long to catch Card’s notice. As my sister put it, this author must have died when he got that.
It’s an impressive debut, and certainly only of the more imaginative fantasies I’ve read. I really enjoy it when an author is able to construct a self-consistent, concrete world without falling into the overused Tolkeinian tropes. (You can’t see it, but right now I’m staring pointedly at every Vulcan-eared archer elf and bearded miner dwarf that has ever existed ever.) It certainly borrows from other fantasy mainstays, and it has a lot of commonality with some other things I’ve seen – Sabriel and its sequels, the Edeard storyline of Peter Hamilton’s Void Trilogy, even A Game of Thrones (though I actually like the characters in Elantris) – but Elantris is constructed in a very unique way.
The plot takes place in a land where the eponymous city was once the seat of magical powers that let its citizens live however they pleased, without worrying about any basic necessities or threat of invasion. A key aspect of the city’s magic was that only Elantrians could perform it – but anyone, anywhere in the kingdom, could suddenly find themselves struck by the transformation into an Elantrian. The culture of the kingdom is simultaneously elitist and egalitarian, and no one goes hungry or suffers from illness. And so life goes on, until one day a disaster strips the Elantrians of their power and turns the city, along with all its magical people, into decaying ruins. The remaining population of the kingdom throws down their now-impotent rulers and locks them all within Elantris’ walls, and the mercantile class become robber barons to impose their own feudal rule on the kingdom. Still…anyone, anytime can be struck by the transformation – but now they are shunned, despised, and imprisoned inside the fallen city.
The novel follows three key characters ten years after the disaster takes place. Raoden, popular heir to the new throne of the kingdom, finds himself turned into an Elantrian and immediately begins to unravel the mysteries surrounding the ruin after his father tosses him into the city. Sarene, a twist on the classic tomboy princess, is en route from another kingdom to join Prince Raoden in a political marriage when his transformation hits; with him declared dead, the treaty governing the kingdoms’ alliance makes their marriage binding as she remains ignorant of his true fate. She must get to know her new homeland while politically maneuvering to safeguard both kingdoms – as the alliance was an important move to present a united front against a third aggressor nation. Meanwhile, Hrathen, a high priest of that third nation, has quietly infiltrated the kingdom and seeks to convert its populace to his religion before his Emperor loses patience and decides to destroy them all.
A word of warning: minor spoilers follow. But I promise that they are tiny.
One of the things I particularly liked about this novel is how self-consistent the mechanism for doing Elantrian magic is. This magic is not vaguely defined – nobody “searches out with their feelings,” nobody “embraces the power rushing through them,” nobody practices the perfect flick of their magic wand. After reading this book, I realized that now I know how to do Elantrian magic, if I lived in this world. Going a step further, we readers actually get to see how research into magic would work in Elantris – that is, how to discover and construct new spells. It’s a very open-ended system, and very specifically defined, lending this fantasy an air of….well, perhaps “realism” isn’t the right word, so let’s go with “concreteness.” All this isn’t frivolous: the basis for and technique of Elantrian magic becomes a major plot point. And with us readers given the tools to follow along, I found myself able to solve the puzzle of Elantris before the characters did. (Fortunately, they were not very far behind!)
In fact, I’d have to say that this is one of the most economical novels I’ve read: Sanderson introduces very little into the book that doesn’t become important in some way or another. This is generally good, but at the same time, sometimes it makes events in the plot seem a little too easy to see coming. Of course the prince and princess eventually get together; of course the high priest’s overzealous acolyte causes his downfall; of course the autistic child we briefly meet has a super-important role to play in the book’s climax. This is not to say that there aren’t plenty of twists that are surprising – there are – or characters who die tragic deaths – there are those, too – or even unexpected relationships that develop – that also happens. It’s kind of amazing just how many events got packed into this book, for its relatively small size. I think I enjoyed the book more for being able to piece things together on my own: in a way, that proves the logic and consistency underlying Sanderson’s world and shows that his few basic principles go a lot further to move the plot along than a sudden “aha, reader! I bet you weren’t expecting me to throw THIS at you!” sort of forced “twist.”
Sanderson creates a colorful cast of secondary characters, but for the most part he seems to enjoy exploring the relationships that develop between them more than he likes looking at how the characters might evolve. In the cases of Sarene and Raoden, in particular, the plot is an affirmation of being true to oneself in the face of an adverse situation or heckling from others. They come out of their experiences richer, but that is more because they shaped the world around them than the reverse. Hrathen, though, is a much more interesting case: over the course of the plot we see him struggle with his faith in an attempt to reconcile its “convert or die” mentality with his personal belief that he is genuinely trying to help the people of the kingdom. The particular manner of his fall and transformation at the climax is a little surprising, yet makes perfect sense – like much of this book. Sadly, Hrathen’s part in the climax of the plot is also the subject of the novel’s most moralizing speechifying; Sanderson manages to stop just after making his point, though, before he gets overbearing.
The author closes Elantris not with a complete triumph of good over evil, but with the balance of power restored. Elantris leaves the door wide open for a sequel, with antagonists clearly still extant in Sanderson’s world and new facets of Elantrian (or other) magic yet to be learned. I will be happy to find out what those facets are when I can. For now, though, Elantris is a fine standalone novel that provides a fresh look at a lot of fantasy themes in a thoroughly imagined universe.