Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Elantris, by Brandon Sanderson

One-line summary: A first draft of The Way of Kings, before Brandon Sanderson learned how to write better.

Tor, 2005, 496 pages

Elantris: gigantic, beautiful, literally radiant, filled with benevolent beings who used their powerful magical abilities to benefit all the people of Arelon. Yet each of these godlike beings had been an ordinary person until touched by the mysterious transforming power of the Shaod. Then, ten years ago, without warning, the magic failed. Elantrians became wizened, feeble, leper-like creatures, and Elantris itself dark, filthy, and crumbling. The Shaod became a curse.

Arelon's new capital city, Kae, crouches in the shadow of Elantris, which its people do their best to ignore. Princess Sarene of Teod has come to Kae for a marriage of state with Crown Prince Raoden, hoping - based on their correspondence - also to find love. She finds instead that Raoden has died, and she is considered his widow. Both Teod and Arelon are under threat as the last remaining holdouts against the imperial ambitions of the ruthless religious fanatics of Fjordell. Sarene decides to make the best of a sad situation and use her position to oppose the machinations of Hrathen, a Fjordell high priest who has come to convert Arelon and claim it for his emperor and his god.

But neither Sarene nor Hrathen suspects the truth about Prince Raoden's disappearance. Taken by the same strange malady that struck the fallen gods of Elantris, Raoden was secretly imprisoned within the dark city. His struggle to create a society for the wretches trapped there begins a series of events that will bring hope to Arelon, and perhaps even reveal the secret of Elantris itself.

Okay, I will admit that I like Brandon Sanderson but I've kind of got a love-hate relationship going with his writing. He's a good writer, but not a great writer. He's that nice but nerdy kid from your high school who was always with the AD&D and Magic: The Gathering games and talking about how he was writing his very own fantasy novel, but he's that kid who made good and actually grew up to be a fantasy novelist. And because he's topping charts as the designated heir to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, he's not just a high school creative writing dork gone pro, but he's becoming a Big Name.

I started on Sanderson with the Mistborn trilogy, which sucked me in, annoyed the hell out of me with its ending, but still left me rather fond of the ash-covered world where the Dark Lord won, the Allomancy powers that made magical duels half-kung fu fighting and half X-Men vs. Sauron, and of course, Vin, the street urchin who transforms into a godlike Mary Sue.

Sanderson’s strengths are his world-building and the carefully-designed magic systems he creates. I went ahead and invested myself in the ginormous new epic fantasy series he’s started. The Way of Kings is lots of fun and generally a cut above most fantasy novels, if already showing the characteristic bloat of an author who’s become a fanboy favorite and a publisher’s darling.

So having read these later works, I went back and read his debut fantasy novel, Elantris.

Oh, gosh. Where to start? This is going to be another one of those reviews where I sound like I hated the book though I really didn't, but it is so obvious that this was his debut novel. The story is fine, but it certainly would not have made me a fan if this was the first book of his that I read, and if you've read The Way of Kings first, you can clearly see how Sanderson was basically hashing out all the themes and character archetypes he'd use later in that (much superior) book.

Also, everything that annoyed me in his later books (Mary Sues, a creepy fetishizing of nobility, and Mormon-flavored soul-bonds and deux ex machina endings) is really, really evident in his first outing.

Mary Sue Got Married

Princess Sarene is from the modern, progressive nation of Teod, which, with Arelon, are the last holdouts against the evil empire of Fjordell. The Fjords (who are not called that in the book but really should be) follow the Shu-Dereth religion (see below), and want to crush the heretics who worship Domi (same god, different name, but don't tell the Fjords that, it's kind of like saying that Allah and God are the same, it drives the fanatics on both sides batshit).

Okay, see the problem here? Admit it, your eyes are glazing over. "Teod," "Arelon," "Shu-Dereth," "Fjordell"? This is a book that is very, very heavy in Made-Up Fantasy Words. Now of course any secondary world setting has to have some of that, but in my opinion, one of the things that made The Lord of the Rings more accessible than it otherwise might have been is that Tolkien doesn't plunge you straightaway into trying to sort out who the heck everyone from Sauron to the Númenóreans are. He gives you the history and geopolitical landscape of Middle-Earth in bite-sized chunks (unless you try to read the Silmarillion). But beginning fantasy writers who map out their worlds with all the loving attention to detail as Tolkien want to feed it to you all at once, and Sanderson was, when he wrote Elantris, a beginning fantasy writer. I've seen much worse, but even being an experienced reader of fantasy novels, there were lots of names and countries and religions to keep track of, and that's before we even get to all the "Aons" in his magic system.

But back to Princess Sarene. She's six feet tall and very intelligent, so of course no man wants to marry her 'cause she's just too darn independent and outspoken and feisty! Hence her arranged political union to Raoden, the Crown Prince of Arelon, sight unseen. Except just before she arrives, Roaden gets stricken by the Shaod, which used to turn people into the god-like Elantrians but now it turns them into sickly, undead Elantrians. So he gets cast into the once-shining city of Elantris which is now a moldering, empty slum, it's covered up and his father claims he died, and Sarene arrives to find herself widowed before she was married (thanks to some strange marriage law which posthumously marries her to her now-dead husband and forbids her to ever marry again WHY YES, BRANDON SANDERSON IS A MORMON, HOW DID YOU GUESS?).

So, since she's got nothing better to do, Sarene proceeds to take over the country, mostly by bullying everyone in sight to do what she says. All the lazy old men who want to reform Arelon despite their inept, corrupt king (Raoden's father) have apparently never met such an outspoken, feisty woman before, so when she starts telling them what they need to do to reform Arelon and prevent Fjordell from conquering them, they listen to her. Soon she pretty much has the court wrapped around her finger, including her father-in-law, who was supposedly a cunning merchant and trader before he became a king but can't see through a foreign princess bluffing her way into his court and listening in on everything by pretending to be a silly airhead who wants to set up her easel and paint in the middle of his throneroom. Yes, really. (Also, there is a running joke which runs way too long about how she's a lousy painter. She's a genius and good at everything she does except she can't paint. Okay, fair enough. Except supposedly she's such a bad painter that people can't even tell whether she's painting a horse or a flower. Like, really? She's been seriously trying to learn to paint for ten years. It's certainly true that some people just don't have the talent to become great at certain things, but no intelligent person who actually puts in ten years of effort learning to do something is so bad at it that their best efforts look like a kindergartener's handpainting. I know this is a tiny thing -- it was like one page in the book -- but it's an example of the sort of dumb throw-away humor Sanderson inserted that threw me completely out of the story.)

If you have not figured it out yet, Sarene is indeed a great big Mary Sue. The brilliant reforms she introduces to Arelon? Well, besides pointing out that they might need a military (Fjordell has the biggest army in the world and Arelon has no army at all, since they used to be protected by gods -- apparently it did not occur to anyone else in Arelon in the ten years since that this might become a problem), she also helpfully suggests that slavery is bad and the nobles should try paying their slaves and then they'll work loyally and happily for them! Because Sarene is a Mary Sue and everyone loves her (or at least cannot think of a rebuttal to this brilliant argument), they agree to try out her novel idea.

Not content to reform Arelon's military and economy, Sarene also introduces feminism to the court.

Many years ago (1989, to be exact), I watched an "adaptation" of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, starring a twelve-year-old Keshia Knight Pulliam. Yes, it was as bad as it sounds. I have no idea why I was watching it, okay? I guess Quantum Leap or Roseanne weren't on that night. Anyway, pointing out the stupid in a TV movie about Rudy Huxtable going back in time to join King Arthur's court is like pointing out the wet spot in a lake, but the reason I am bringing it up here is because there's one particularly stupid bit I remember, namely that Pulliam at one point teaches Arthur's ladies-in-waiting karate. Yes, seriously. No, seriously! Look, go watch it if you think I'm making this shit up. So of course later on the damsels kick Mordred's ass with the karate moves they learned from a twelve-year-old. (Okay, I might be fuzzy on the details, but really, it was something like that.)

Can you see where this is going? Yes, Princess Sarene convinces all of Arelon's noblewomen that fencing is much cooler than needle-work. And they giggle and tee-hee their way through it, but in the climax, they use their fencing skills to... well, mostly get their asses kicked, but still.

Bonus Gratuitous Pop Culture Reference

Remember how no one wants Sarene because she's too smart and independent and headstrong? Or so she keeps moping to herself -- "Woe is me, everyone respects me, but nobody sees me as a woman!" Despite the fact that pretty much everyone thinks she's hot and awesome and all that.

No, really, everyone falls in love with Sarene, including the chief bad guy. Yes, there is a bit in the climax where Hrathen, the Fjordell high priest who's been plotting to undermine Arelon's government and chewing up the scenery all through the book -- and being balked at every turn by Sarene's cleverness -- reveals that he fell in love with her.

This guy is like, old, and has spent his entire life believing she and her people are heretics. But Sarene is Just That Special. She's That Girl, the one whose personality exerts an inexorable gravitational pull on everyone else.

What These People Need Is A Gary Stu

Elantris switches between three primary POVs: Sarene, Raoden, and Hrathen. (I'm'a gonna get to him.) While Sarene is introducing democracy, feminism, and free markets to a medieval fantasy kingdom, Raoden is figuring out the secrets of Elantris. As a character, Raoden is not as interesting as Sarene, though the interesting world-building bits happen inside Elantris. Since the Elantrians became "accursed" by the Shaod, the city has become a prison for them. Sanderson does make it an interestingly grim and dreary place. It turns out the Elantrians are still "immortal" but not in a good way. Their wounds never heal, not even the tiny little cuts and scrapes and bruises everyone accumulates day to day, and never stop hurting. They still feel hunger, but they can't starve to death. It really sucks to be an Elantrian; most go mad in short order.

Raoden, being the Gary Stu who is Sarene's ordained Heavenly Spouse, simply refuses to allow himself to succumb to despair. Through sheer force of will, he wins the respect and loyalty of pretty much everyone around him. In a feral city run by three warlords, Roaden bluffs his way through one encounter after another and, just as Sarene is taking over his old court, he pretty much takes over Elantris, starting with no power base and no abilities. Then he figures out why the Elantrians' magic failed and starts fixing things.

It is not so much the Gary Stus Sanderson writes that annoy me. It's that "gravitational pull" I mentioned above -- his main characters are just better and nobler and specialer than everyone else. They will change the world and right all wrongs because their hearts are pure. Also, they are always members of the ruling class. In every Sanderson book I've read, he usually has a few protagonists who are "commoners," but the leaders, the reformers, the ones who inspire the huddled masses were literally born into the role.

It's okay to have a hereditary ruling class as long as you make sure not to be evil. 'Cause the people want benevolent despots. Or as Sarene says:

“The people must feel that you love them. Let the peasants know that you care, and they will give you their hearts and their sweat.”

Yep, those peasants will love you, as long as you're nice to them and you are the Chosen Elect.

Stephanie Meyer isn't the only one who's got issues with Catholics

I see a lot of associations between Sanderson's Mormon faith and the implicit messages in all his books. It's not like he's writing straight-up translations of LDS theology into his fantasy worlds, but there is a certain set of recurring tropes which, sure, could be completely my own interpretation (though I've seen other reviewers picking up on the same things).

But let's take a look at the Shu-Dereth church, who are the bad guys in Elantris. It's an extremely hierarchical religion, with one individual at the top who supposedly speaks for Yadoth Himself and issues orders to everyone else throughout the empire and beyond. It's got high priests, priests, monks, and lowly acolytes all over the world; in countries where Shu-Dereth is the dominant religion, even rulers are expected to bow before ecclesiastical authorities. They've also got secretive orders and hidden monasteries (where they train, among other things, warrior monks and assassins). They think everyone else is Doing It Wrong, and while they will happily take advantage of religious tolerance in other countries to preach and convert the heathens, they don't hesitate to clamp down and start burning heretics once they're in power.

By comparison, the "good guy" religion in Teod and Arelon has a much more easy-going attitude towards worship, and while they have a church too, they consider their relationship with Domi to be more personal. They don't really have a clergy, except for a Patriarch at the top and a few friendly local priests who mostly just officiate over weddings.

The Sparkledammerung (which if you have not read it, OMG, you must!) is probably the funniest sporking of Twilight ever, but it's also an account, by an ex-Mormon, of just how much hidden Mormonism is written into the Twilight series. Among other things, stoney321 points out that the Volturri (the bad-guy vamps in Meyer's series) are totally Catholic, or rather, an evil vampiric version of the Roman Catholic Church as Mormons see it. Now, like me, stoney321 could have her head up her ass and be totally wrong and just reading things into the story that aren't there (though unlike me, she is an ex-Mormon, so I'd assume there's a higher chance she knows what she's talking about), but it makes sense to me. In Elantris, the parallels between "Shu-Dereth" and the Catholic Church, or rather, an evil fantasy-world version of the Catholic Church, leap out and hit you over the head. Whether it has anything to do with Brandon Sanderson's religious beliefs, I can't say. I doubt it was his intention to write an anti-Catholic screed from a Mormon perspective, any more than it was Meyer's, and I suspect all these influences I am inferring are unconscious on his part, if they are there at all. But it's not exactly subtle.

Just to reinforce the point, Hrathen, who is the third POV character of the book, and the antagonist for much of it, ends up having a crisis of faith as he realizes that basically, the PopeWeyrn is a fraud and the ChurchShu-Dereth is evil.

If you want to read what Sanderson himself says about Elantris and his intentions, the novel was actually his Master's thesis, and you can read his dissertation on it. No mention of theology; basically, he argues that he was trying to break the mold of fantasy epics that have been rigidly following the Campbellian model.

So, this was a Creative Writing major's final project

One of the criticisms of The Way of Kings is that it was a bit flat, stylistically -- lots of detail, lots of action, lots and lots and lots of description, but Sanderson is not a writer’s writer. It's probably unfair to pick on his prose in a book that he wrote as a Master's thesis and which was his debut novel. He really has become a much better writer. But there is some real bush-league writing in Elantris. He constantly has characters make jokes or sarcastic comments, followed by narration telling us that the character is joking or being sarcastic. Ironic events are followed by: "How ironic that...." And so on.

So I shall finish this review by presenting:

The Elantris Drinking Game

  • One drink for every time Sarene (our proud, independent, strong-willed princess) "flushes" or "blushes furiously."
  • One drink for every "My lord"/"My lady."
  • One drink for every time a character says "Merciful Domi!" or "Blessed Domi!"
  • Two drinks for every "What in the name of Blessed Domi?"
  • One drink for every "saidism" (dialog tags instead of "said"); e.g., "announced," "huffed," "interjected," etc.
  • Two drinks if the saidism is "informed."
  • Five drinks for this line alone: "The face that appeared was a man with an oval face..."

Verdict: An epic fantasy novel intended to break the Campbellian model, it only partially succeeds. This was Brandon Sanderson's debut novel and it really shows. It's not a bad read, but if you've read his later works, there really isn't much reason to go back and read his earlier efforts, and if you haven't, I'd recommend not starting with this one, because his later books are much better.
Tags: books, brandon sanderson, fantasy, reviews

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