|Elantris is a city of immortals, its citizens the victims of
a mysterious nocturnal transformation that strikes the population of Arelon at random. In
the past, the Elantrians enjoyed perfect health, had glowing skin and wielded fabulous
magical powers; however, ten years ago the magic ran out, and today's Elantrians look like
badly preserved mummies, never recover from injuries and live in a decaying city. Prince
Raoden of Arelon undergoes this change and is thrown into Elantris just days before his
betrothed, Princess Sarene of Teod, arrives in the country. In the same week, Gyorn
Hrathen also arrives at court; a high-ranking priest in a militant holy empire, he has
been given three months to convert the nation of Arelon to his religion, failing which his
superiors will launch a full military invasion.
Brandon Sanderson's debut novel, six years old but only now being published in the UK on
the back of his more recent, more successful novels. The overall tone, I would say, is
Young Adult, although there's no indication that the book is aimed at that market.
Unusually, it's an epic fantasy series of one volume, with the whole story laid out and
wrapped up in just six hundred pages. This is a rare pleasure in a literary field composed
largely of multi-doorstop sagas. It's an engaging read there's no denying the
evidence of Sanderson's ability as a writer, even here at the beginning of his career. At
no point did my attention flag. The agendas of his viewpoint characters are laid out
clearly and consistently, with the interplay between those agendas providing the bulk of
the tension within the story. Sanderson especially deserves credit for his approach to
magic. The future of Arelon hinges on the heroes finding out what happened to Elantris'
magic and how they can restore it the truth has been cleverly hidden under the
reader's nose, and the whole system of Elantrian magic is a methodical one, so that there
can be no suggestion of the heroes simply plucking magical solutions out of thin air.
Where Sanderson loses points from me is in his tendency towards the conventional,
tipping at times into the reactionary. The chief characters are all standard-issue fantasy
types the plucky, multi-talented princess; the noble prince with the popular touch;
the rubbish merchant king; the evil, scheming high priest and all high society
figures. The rest of the major cast is stuffed with barons and lords. The only working
folk who are given names and dialogue are those who've become Elantrians so they've
also been blessed with a kind of celestial privilege and it's worth noting that
they wallow incapably in pain and filth until Prince Raoden comes along and gives them all
jobs to do. Message received: commoners need the quality to tell them how to live their
lives. They just couldn't survive any other way. This sentiment is all but openly stated
in the book's epilogue, so regrettably it's one of the last thoughts the reader is left
I should also mention the cultural stereotyping. It's not a problem in itself for a
fantasy writer to use thinly-veiled real-world nations as the basis for fictional ones
it's a world-building shortcut that often works, and Sanderson is far from the only
writer to do it. It's a shame, if not a problem, when fictional nations are defined in
terms of a handful of broad characteristics, in a way that might be considered offensive
in real life. The problem comes when the two practices combine, and the fictional
stereotypes map onto real-world prejudices. Hmm, a nation of flamboyant, dark-skinned
people who practise ritual sacrifice? A nation of inscrutable martial artists with a rigid
code of honour? Again, unfortunate.
Elantris is an enjoyable read, but not without its problems.
Recommended subject to caveats.