I want to like Brandon Sanderson’s books more than I do, because I feel like he is trying to do interesting things with high fantasy. He is working hard to create fascinating fictional worlds with well-designed systems of magic, to emulate the high fantasy of our forbears but clean out some of the cobwebs that have gathered in the corners of the genre. I can grok that. And I do enjoy his writing; I really liked Mistborn even if The Well of Ascension wasn’t as impressive. So I finally got around to reading Elantris, Sanderson’s debut and a non-Mistborn novel. And it was good.
Elantris, much like its samey-sounding counterpart in our world, Atlantis, is a Lost City—though it isn’t particularly lost in a geographic sense. Everyone knows where Elantris is; it looms over the city of Kae, a foreboding reminder of past sins. But it’s Lost in every other sense: it was once home to godlike beings and is now home to the living dead.
Wait … well … not “living dead” like “zombies”. Though they don’t need to eat, and mortal injuries don’t kill them….
Oh my god the Elantrians are totally zombies.
Brandon Sanderson wrote a fantasy novel about intelligent zombies trying to win back their access to the magical powers they used to oppress the world.
I’m sure that’s not the typical way to interpret Elantris, but I’m going to go with it.
Sanderson drives the plot forward through several characters: Raoden, Sarene, and Hrathen. I found Raoden a little too … perfect … for my tastes. Even his self-doubting was so … perfect. I wanted to smack him. Sarene, on the other hand, was a fun character right from the start. But I didn’t like the handling of the romance towards the end. Hrathen is my favourite: it was a pleasure to watch Sanderson turn what could have been a stereotypical evil zealot into a doubting priest who wants to avoid bloodshed. Marvelous!
Elantris stands out because it has many of the hallmarks of fantasy but is actually more of a political thriller than an epic battle between good and evil. You see this kind of thing in other genres (urban fantasy’s crossover with mystery is almost a given these days), but it’s harder to pull off as your fantasy gets progressively higher. Other authors—Scott Lynch and Lisa Shearin spring to mind—are attempting similar things. Political machinations between and within nations are themselves interesting, so if you throw in some crazy zombie magic and a religious crusade, you’ve got yourself a party.
Where Elantris stumbles is generally its pacing and some clunky twists. My interest began to flag towards the middle of the book, particularly when Raoden repeatedly lies to Sarene in different situations rather than coming clean to her the first time (or even second time) that they meet. I understand that lies are a subtle form of conflict and, hence, they help drive the story. But I always hate it when it seems like characters are lying to each other for contrived reasons. Anyway, the ending picks up quite a bit towards the climax, but the resolution is awfully rushed.
Similarly, Sanderson throws a few curveballs that probably wouldn’t get him thrown out but would at least cause some angry calls from the umpire. They just aren’t as smoothly integrated into the story as I would like. On a related note, Sanderson is almost too fond of fleshing out his secondary characters and wrapping everything up in a neat little bow (I’m thinking of the revelations about Kiin to be specific).
Honestly, though, it’s hard to find major flaws in Elantris. It isn’t terribly ambitious, but it is creative enough to be amusing and entertaining. It has some good characters and a reasonably good story. I can’t call this essential reading—you would probably be better off with the Mistborn series—but if you have a rainy day and a library card, don’t cross this one off your list.
Seriously, Raoden and his friends are all zombies. I can totally see the sequel being about how everyone was stupid to trust the Elantrians not to eat their braaaaaaains.