Saturday, July 18, 2009

Book Review: Elantris

Perhaps "review" is too strong a word, but some of us at Fiefdom (Errant Knave, Francesco, and the hamster that runs the wheel in my brain) would like to keep track of the books that I buy, borrow, and sometimes even read. July 18th seems as auspicious a day to begin as any other, but let me point something out: I will usually like the books I post. I read what I'm in the mood for (unless it's for work or school), and I'm rarely in the mood to be disappointed, so I pick books that I hope will be good. I rely on word-of-mouth, critical praise, and my own judgement. All three have been known to fail me, but chances are that my review will be positive. Everyone ok with that? Good. Let's begin the begin (an REM reference, for those of you not in the know).

The book: Elantris, by Brandon Sanderson
This is a stand-alone novel, which seems rare in fantasy (almost as rare as good cover art). The characters and the world are so clear and realized that it almost makes me wish there were more stories about Elantris. Almost. Stand-alones are good because the story gets wrapped up in one book, instead of having to wait around for twenty or thirty years until book 14 of the series gets published. (Ironic: Sanderson is the author chosen to finish Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, which means he has to write books 12, 13, and 14.)

There is an author blurb from Orson Scott Card on the front cover, and it says "Elantris is the finest novel of fantasy to be written in many years." Typical hyperbole for a book cover, especially when you consider that this was Sanderson's first published work, back in 2005. Except... maybe this time the hyperbole was right.

Elantris is a story told from three perspectives, and they belong to:
-Raoden, the former prince of Arelon, cursed to live as an Elantrian.
-Sarene, princess of Teod, and Raoden's widow, even though they were never married.
-Hrathen, high priest of Fjordell, bent on converting the people of Arelon before his lord and god invades the nation.

Raoden gets a chapter, followed by Sarene and Hrathen, and then the cycle is repeated. The device uses three limited perspectives that overlap to give us a complete story.

This is not a fantasy story with elves and dragons, witches and wizards, or any of that. It has a couple of magic systems, but a lot of the story is about the loss of magic. Elantris used to be the shining city of the gods, but that stopped being the case ten years earlier. Regular people would be chosen, transformed overnight to become Elantrians, and they were granted wisdom, special powers, and long life. Something happened to change all that, and becoming an Elatrian now is worse than death. The first line from Chapter 1 is: "Prince Raoden of Arelon awoke early that morning, completely unaware that he had been damned for all eternity." Grim.

This is what happens when you're an Elantrian: you wake up without hair, with shriveled and blotchy skin. Your heart doesn't beat, and you don't have to eat (because you're kind of dead), but you still get hungry after a while. But worse than hunger is pain; any cut, stub, or injury you sustain does not go away or diminish over time. Accumulate enough minor injuries and you'll go mad. Your body doesn't heal, but it doesn't die. Many of the citizens of Arelon don't know this because they lock the Elantrians away in Elantris, now a slime-covered reminder of the past.

To Raoden's credit, he decides to make the most of his situation. Likewise, Sarene makes the most of being a stranger in a foreign land, widowed to a husband she never met. Oh, and she thinks Raoden's dead, because the king thinks the lie is better than letting the people know their beloved prince became one of the walking un-dead.

Raoden and Sarene are intelligent, brave, and completely likable. Which leaves us with Hrathen. He's supposed to be the bad guy, because he's from the bad country. However, he's just as intelligent and brave as the other two, making him a perfect foil, and (in my opinion) just as likable.

There's a good set of secondary characters, and political drama to spare. Plus, since we're privy to Hrathen's thoughts, we know that the Fjordell invasion is coming, so the clock is ticking for everyone to resolve their problems in time.

My criticisms are small. The only blatant example I can think of concerns a revelation involving Sarene's uncle Kiin. It goes nowhere, making it kind of pointless (unless there's a sequel). Other than that, the book is stellar. If it doesn't feel like a first novel, it's probably because Sanderson wrote five more before this one, but this was the first one to get published.

Oh, and remember what I said about fantasy cover art? How some of it can be really, really bad? Well, Sanderson seems to have luck with this sort of thing. The Mistborn trilogy, Warbreaker, and Elantris all have good cover art. Click on the cover image to see a higher-res image of Hrathen and Sarene with the shadow of Elantris behind them.

Verdict: Highly recommended.

Note: This might have to become a one-a-month experiment, because I don't know if I'll be disciplined enough to write after every book. I'll also have to devise a rating system. I could do the recommended thing, or go with four or five stars. I could even be like the New York Times, or Quill and Quire, and save a single star for the very highly recommended books. Any preference?

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