Book Review: “Elantris” by Brandon Sanderson

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I’ve never read anything by Brandon Sanderson before, and I’m generally leery of thick fantasy novels that have the look of “Book One of a Punishingly Long Series.” Three things convinced me to give this book a try. First is the fact that, although it was his first published novel back in 2005, Sanderson hasn’t written any sequels to it… yet. I’m told he plans to, but so far all he has rolled out is a novella set in the same universe, titled The Emperor’s Soul, and a short e-book called The Hope of Elantris. It’s possible we may luck out, and this will be a standalone novel; that would be just about perfect. The second and deciding vote in favor of reading it is the fact that an audiobook, read by Jack Garrett for Recorded Books, was available at the public library. Third, and making it unanimous, is the list of other works by Brandon Sanderson, which includes a bunch of other stuff that I suddenly want to read. More on that in a bit.

The city of Elantris used to be a glowing place, populated by gods in human form. Their skin gleamed like polished silver. Their hair was radiant white. They could heal sicknesses and injuries, turn trash into food, and do many other wonders, using a type of magic called AonDor: channeling enormous power (Dor) into the world by means of complex, glowing characters drawn on the air (Aons). Elantrians were almost immortal, though anyone could become one. If you were at least partly descended from the people of Arelon or Teod, and if you lived in or near the country of Arelon that surrounded Elantris, you might just wake up one morning and find yourself Elantrian. It was all very lovely until something happened that I wouldn’t be able to spell, since I only read the audio-book. Fortunately, I was able to find an online glossary of this book, to which I am greatly indebted.

The word I’m looking for is Reod, and however you spell it, it shattered the magic of Elantris. Suddenly, a city of the gods became an earthly hell of the damned. In the ten years since the Reod, Elantris has become a dark, slime-encrusted ghetto full of shriveled zombies, divided between three savage gangs. When a new person undergoes the transformation into an Elantrian (Shaod), he is considered dead—though his actual fate is worse than death. Their hearts don’t beat. Their hair falls out. Their skin turns blotchy, gray, and wrinkled. No matter how much they eat (which isn’t much, most days), they are tormented by hunger. And since their bodies no longer heal, all their injuries, from a stubbed toe to a scraped elbow, accumulate in a chorus of pain that will eventually drive them mad. Most Elantrians last only a few months before they check out, becoming a whimpering bag of bones, never able to die. For good reason, those who continue to become Elantrians—at a rate of one or two a day, on average—are regarded as eternally damned. The local priests clap white robes on them, hand them a small basket of food, and shove them into the abandoned city with a brisk slam of the front gate.

Ten years after the Reod, the kingdom of Arelon is in trouble. Raoden, the king’s only son, has fallen to the Shaod. His royal father covers it up, claiming that Raoden died of some disfiguring plague (hence the closed-casket funeral). This triggers a unique clause in Raoden’s marriage contract to the Teoish princess Sarene, who was already en route their wedding when fate struck. On arrival, Sarene finds she is already legally married to Raoden, already a widow who can never marry again. Though her hopes of finding love and companionship are disappointed, Sarene is politician enough to recognize that both Arelon and Teod are in trouble. Both countries will need their alliance to survive against the gathering might of a theocratic empire that has already conquered the rest of the world. And even if her headstrong ways put her at odds with King Iadon’s views on women, Sarene may be Arelon’s best hope for resisting the Fjordell Empire.

Using a combination of religious outreach and military might, the followers of the Derethi god Jaddeth and his earthly servant, the Wyrn, have all but completed their mission to subdue the world. After heinous scenes of slaughter and chaos wrapped up their latest conquest, the only remaining holdouts are Teod and Arelon. Now there’s a new Gyorn in town—that’s a high-ranking Derethi priest, if you want to know—and he intends to convert the people of Arelon to his religion in three months or bust. And by “bust” I mean, if he doesn’t succeed, the Wyrn’s armies will destroy every man, woman, and child in the country. Hrathen knows that the only way to avoid a bloodbath is to make full use of his talent for reasonable persuasion, bribery, and political manipulation, to capture the allegiance of the nobility. Once their leaders are converted, the people will follow. Then it will be a simple matter of converting the kingdom of Arelon into a client state of Fjorden.

What Hrathen doesn’t reckon on is the political skill of the young princess from Teod. With wits that match his own, she quickly rises to leadership in an opposing party that thwarts Hrathen’s plans at every step. Meanwhile, Hrathen’s designs for saving Arelon by peaceful means are undermined by Dashe, a passionate young priest whose hatred of Elantris is of almost demonic intensity. Between these two, Hrathen finds his faith shaken, his certainties challenged.

On the third point of the triangle, opposite Sarene and Hrathen, is Raoden himself. Everyone thinks he’s dead, but he has other ideas—ideas that bid fair to transform Elantris once again. While he struggles to manage his rapidly growing pain, Raoden tries to unite the almost subhuman gangs of Elantris, beginning to rebuild a society and restore a sense of hope and purpose. Unfortunately he finds his aims thwarted by both Hrathen and Sarene, each of whom wants to use Elantris for political reasons. As he senses his time as a conscious person running out, Raoden races to rediscover the lost art of AonDor and the secret of why it stopped working. Then, if he can manage it before the inevitable disaster breaks out, perhaps he can heal what was broken ten years ago—and save a kingdom from the brink of destruction.

Whew! That’s a lot of stuff to pack into one book! If I teased it any less, you wouldn’t know enough of what the book is about to understand why it’s such an impressive story. Any more, and I would risk spoiling too much. Here’s hoping you now know just enough about Elantris to salivate. It’s a thought-provoking book full of ideas about politics and religion. It’s an immersive book, introducing a richly complex fantasy world, built atop many layers of history, folklore, and culture. It’s an emotionally gripping book, touching the heart with the misery of Elantris, the loneliness of the princess, the tormented doubts of the priest, the growing love between Raoden and Sarene, and above all, the skillful application of suspense. There came a time, towards the end of the audio-book, when it was no longer safe for me to listen to it while driving. I had to take the CDs indoors, where I could swear at the characters, and yell, and wave my hands, and kick the air, and suck on my knuckles, without endangering other drivers and pedestrians.

This book was Brandon Sanderson’s big break. According to this list of his titles, he went on from here to write such world-building fantasy epics as the Mistborn trilogy (now four books, starting with The Final Empire), the Stormlight Archive series (so far two books, starting with The Way of Kings), the Infinity Blade series (Awakening and Redemption), and another standalone novel of the same type, titled Warbreaker. He is also the author chosen by Robert Jordan’s widow to complete the Wheel of Time cycle, which he managed in only three books (from The Gathering Storm to A Memory of Light). After reading this book, I will be more tempted to plunge into more of these big, fat, highly acclaimed novels.

However… There are other titles by Mr. Sanderson that I find even more imminently attractive. Now that I have tried him out, I don’t know how I can resist them any longer. These include the Alcatraz quartet, beginning with Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians, and featuring a bespectacled boy with amazing powers; the ongoing Reckoners trilogy, starting with Steelheart, and presenting a dystopian spin on the concept of a world with superheroes; Firstborn, a standalone novel whose hero is a prince in a futuristic, galactic empire; and The Rithmatist, the start of a new YA fantasy series, set in a world in which sidewalk chalk drawings can come horribly to life. I can hardly wait to plunge in!

Buy the Book!
by Brandon Sanderson’s Website
Recommended Ages: 14+

This book was excellent! I highly recommend this book – buy it now!
This book was excellent! I highly recommend this book – buy it now!