A different kind of magic...
Brandon Sanderson's debut novel, ELANTRIS is a topic of some conversation among readers with a decent number of die hard fans claiming that it is the weakest entry into his famed Cosmere and others saying it is one of their favorites. With even the author himself having made some comments disparaging certain aspects of the book, I was understandably nervous to get into this.
HOW I RATED IT
5/5 While ELANTRIS is undeniably distinct from pretty much all of Sanderson's other Cosmere novels, I personally think this is one of the most enchanting and engrossing stories I have ever read.
As is now typical with most any Sanderson story, the characters are really at the heart of this adventure. Over the course of the narrative, the perspective shifts between three main characters. Raoden is a prince of Arelon who is taken by the mysterious affliction known as the "shaod" and shipped off to Elantris, the once radiant city of god-like beings that is now a sort of dismal "Hell on Earth." Princess Serene arrives in Arelon for her wedding to Raoden just after he is exiled from the city of Kae and is told that he has died (which apparently still binds her into the marriage as per the political contract between his kingdom and her homeland of Taod). Then there is the gyorn, Hrathen, who arrives after Serene on a mission to convert the nation before his mysterious leader sends an army to take it by force. I loved how Sanderson rotates between all three of them in this exact order for pretty much the entire book (except for a few chapters toward the very end where things get a little more chaotic). While shifting perspectives is certainly not a novelty in Sanderson's stories, this predictable rhythm felt so satisfying for some reason and it was cool that some of the bigger events are covered from multiple perspectives. The desperate Elantrians that Roaden meets, the cunning, yet well-intentioned nobles that Serene forges alliances with, and the raging fanatics that Hrathen deals with made this one of the best casts of characters I've ever seen with Shudden, Galladon, Roial, Kiin, and Dilaf being particular standouts.
I have always loved how Sanderson is able to craft worlds with rich and complicated histories that often contain mysteries crucial to the current events of his stories. This is particularly the case with ELANTRIS as there is so much emphasis placed on how things used to be when Elantris was a city of magic and splendor. I also liked that the world felt so much bigger than it usually does in a Sanderson story. The key events still really only taking place in a very small portion of a large and politically complex landscape, but the presence of other nations and peoples is felt in other ways. I also felt like the political intrigue was a lot more complex than what I've come to expect and I really enjoyed how I slowly came to understand not only Arlenian's social system, but also some of the politics of Taod and Fjorden (an evil empire of sorts). The city of Elantris itself was deeply compelling as well as Raoden and his friends literally uncover it's secrets in the hopes of finding some sort of key to their survival.
Without giving too much away, it is worth noting that this is another one of Sanderson's earlier novels that I felt nailed the balance between character development, world building, and plot advancement. Raoden is on a quest to help the Elantrian people not just survive, but thrive in a world where their bodies whither, every injury they sustain stays with them forever until the pain eventually breaks their minds, and three viscous gangs steal what little the newcomers arrive with. While he is imprisoned in the once-majestic city, Serene takes it upon herself to continue her supposedly dead husband's mission to liberate the people of Arlene and foil the efforts of the devious gyorn's schemes at the same time. Seeing things from the antagonistic Hrathen's perspective was a really nice touch, especially since Sanderson villains tend to be a bit mysterious and obscure. Raoden's unyielding optimism, Serene's fiery determination, and Hrathen's internal conflict were just as much fun to explore as the now-defunct magic system, delicate political structure, and surprise-laden plot. In the end, what each of these characters brought to their respective sides of the story and how they contributed to uncovering all of this world's mysteries is something that will stick with me for a long time to come.
I read the tenth anniversary edition of this book and definitely found a lot of the bonus content to be quite worthwhile. The forward and endnote were very interesting and I really loved the inclusion of some deleted scenes that focused on a character who was part of the original draft, but ultimately cut because he just didn't work well enough with the story. While I'd have to agree that these cuts were for the better, I loved getting a little bit of insight into Sanderson's writing process and enjoyed his explanation of why he made this difficult decision. There is also a very interesting bonus scene in the final pages of the book which features a character who's become a bit of a recurring personality across the Cosmere stories. The paperback itself is well made, with lots of beautiful illustrations of the Aonic symbols adorning both the chapter headings as well as a special list of them all in an "Ars Arcanum" section. I found the pages to be a bit thin though and wondered why the publisher wouldn't have opted for a higher quality paper given that this is a special edition (more than a few times, I caught myself accidentally flipping a couple of pages at a time). I am also not usually a huge fan of the covers that Sanderson tends to get, but this one is pretty decent.
While many might claim that this is a less interesting part of the Cosmere or that Sanderson's writing wasn't quite up to snuff yet, I would have to strongly disagree and encourage folks to check this one out for themselves if they haven't already. It might be good to go in with the expectation that this will read quite differently from Mistborn or Stormlight Archive books, but I think this novel has a different sort of magic about it. I know this one is definitely one of my all time favorites now.
(+) Beautiful illustrations of each of the Aonic symbols
(+) Three incredible main characters along with an intriguing and dynamic supporting cast
(+) An explosive final act filled with some awesome action sequences
(+) Lots of political intrigue and near-constant plot twists.
(+) The concept of a magic system that is lost or broken was quite captivating
(+) This world presents so much interesting potential that I hope will be explored further some day
(-) The opening chapter does begin a bit abruptly
(-) Thin pages