I love a good series. From J.R.R. to George R.R., there’s a plethora of ways to enjoy the intricate plot and character development that occurs when you start counting pages not in the hundreds, but in the thousands. But sometimes I just… want to read a book? Singular?
Brandon Sanderson’s ELANTRIS is one of these rare standalone novels; rare in the sense that the genre, and Sanderson in particular, tends towards producing series. Not that I would complain if ELANTRIS became a series–I had a great time reading it and I would say that thirteen years after its initial publication the story is as fun and compelling as ever.
ELANTRIS (Amazon) begins with Princess Sarene of Teod sailing into the kingdom of Arelon only to discover that she is a widow. The man she was supposed to marry, Prince Raoden, has died, but her marriage contract stipulates that she is still his wife, whether or not she had the chance to meet him. Disappointed but not distraught, Sarene immediately begins puzzling out the political situation in Arelon.
Sarene is not the only new arrival. Hrathen the Gyorn, one of the highest ranking members of Fjordell’s religious hierarchy has come to convert Arelon’s citizens and save their eternal souls. The catch is that he’s only been given three months by Fjordell’s leaders before they descend to wipe out the unbelievers. Having just helped topple a nearby Republic, a feat which resulted in a fiery, bloody revolution, Hrathen is eager for a peaceful religious transition.
Prince Raoden, on the other hand, is experiencing an entirely different transition. While not dead, as Sarene has been told, neither is he entirely alive. Instead, a terrible curse known as the Shaod has fallen on him, suspending his body somewhere between life and death. He has been exiled to the nearby city of Elantris, which used to be a place of incredible beauty and power where godlike beings lived. Now the city, like Raoden’s body, is in ruins.
As Sarene, Hrathen’s, and Raoden’s stories intertwine, they uncover many mysteries about both the political and religious turmoil affecting Arelon as well as the mystery of Elantris’ fall.
The pacing of this book is excellent. Each of the three POV character’s stories picks up quickly, and the reader is soon immersed in Sanderson’s world. While it is clear the plot is leading to some big revelations, there are plenty of smaller moments along the way that will have people cheering or gasping.
I think one of the wisest choices Sanderson makes here is to follow only three POV characters for the novel, allowing readers to get to know the characters in a more in-depth way and to feel invested in their discoveries and stories. Sarene, the Teoish princess is a great character. Sanderson is careful to balance her sharp wit and knack for politics with enough personal flaws that she is believable and likeable. She always knows that she can help save Arelon–but seeing her emotional arc as she begins believe that she is lovable is an enjoyable journey.
Raoden is perhaps the weakest character. While his innate optimism may come across as a little Pollyannish to some readers, his thread of the story will undoubtedly keep the reader’s interest as he uncovers Elantris’ secrets.
While Raoden lacks much of an arc, Sanderson’s characterization really shines with Hrathen, who provides an unexpectedly nuanced portrait of faith and doubt. Although he comes into the story with all the trappings of a fanatical warrior priest, his faith and actions are considered and deliberate. Hrathen is a true believer who has, and will, go to great lengths to promote his religion. As the novel moves forward, however, we see Hrathen go through some serious soul searching. Sanderson is careful to make his faith feel multidimensional, and the culmination of his journey is moving and gratifying.
One reason speculative fiction tends toward series is that good worldbuilding simply requires more words. The world in ELANTRIS is a recognizable descendant of the British/northern European tradition that so much speculative fiction over the last several decades has focused on. (As a side note, this is perhaps where the novel begins to show its age. While faux-medieval European settings were fairly standard in 2005, more and more worldbuilding takes other cultures and settings into account.) Where Sanderson sets his world apart in his meticulous attention to detail. I would hasten to add that it isn’t overwhelming detail. Sanderson does a good job avoiding huge infodumps and integrates the rest of the information well. ELANTRIS is a world that feels very well thought out, and Sanderson will quickly draw readers in with his well-constructed world.
By establishing smart limits for himself with both the limited POV characters as well as the timeline of the book, Sanderson has written a story that manages satisfying plot, character development, and worldbuilding, all in less than 500 pages.
- Recommended Age: 12+
- Language: None
- Violence: Yes, although not too graphic
- Sex: None