Review: Elantris by Brandon Sanderson

I have been aware of Brandon Sanderson for a couple of years. I’ve seen his books on the shelves, read his name mentioned in forum posts, even watched his lectures on Youtube. But it has taken until now for me to read him. I can cite a number of excuses – I have been reading mostly history and historical fiction in the last three years, understandably given that for four years ending in September 2011 I was studying ancient history at university.

As well as being the book’s title, Elantris is the name of a once beautiful city, home to astounding magic and godlike people, who a decade before the events of the story became cursed, the people left corpse-like but undying and the magic cut off.

The story follows Reoden, prince of Arelon, the new kingdom outside of Elantris’ walls who is claimed by the curse and finds himself inside the city; Serene, princess of a neighbouring kingdom arrived to marry him, only to be told he had died; and Hrathen, a high level priest sent to convert the people of Arelon to his own warlike religion and prevent Arelon instead being invaded.

Elantris cover
UK cover for Elantris by Brandon Sanderson

Between the goals of the protagonists and the schemes of those seeking power around them, Sanderson has woven a tale of political intrigue, strange magics and remarkable characters. The story twists and turns unpredictably, but not without foundation; at each turn you can look back and see the subtle signposts that were previously overlooked. The plot is neither direct nor simple, but develops logically on a foundation of the personalities and goals not just of the lead characters, but the varied side characters too.

There is great depth to the story, with just enough revealed early to allow the reader to guess some of what is coming, but not all. That depth slows the pace down and makes the book quite a long one, and in particular at the start I had to counsel myself to patience, but that patience was rewarded. It is the strength of the characters and the mysteries requiring revelation that really carry the first few chapters, but by the time I’d got hooked I had neither the desire nor the ability to pull free.

Characterisation is forceful. Most characters have a predominant trait which drives their actions and personal story, and Sanderson does not allow the reader to forget what it is. What this approach lacks in subtlety and depth it makes up for in memorability; it establishes a means of predicting or understanding characters’ behaviour.

One element I did not like was a particular piece of Hrathen’s personal story arc towards the end of the book, a thought he has regarding his opinion of Serene in his last scene. I felt it was unnecessary and undermined his character arc and the interactions between him and Serene. It clashed with the rest of the tone of the book because it felt like a trope, lacking the originality that otherwise characterises the book.

Overall, Elantris is highly enjoyable and engrossing read. I rate it 9/10.

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