Book Review: Elantris (no spoilers)

Note: All of my reviews are spoiler-free unless otherwise noted in the title. This review does contain spoilers pertaining to the book’s setting and magic system, but there are none pertaining to the plot.

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After the Wheel of Time series introduced me to his work, I read Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy (and later, the related novel Alloy of Law, as well as Warbreaker), and instantly fell in love with his books, to the point where I can confidently say that right now, he is my favorite author. Naturally, as I further explore his authorship, I needed to read his first book, Elantris.

Elantris centers around the lives of the Teoish princess Sarene, her betrothed, Prince Raoden of Arelon, Hrathen (a gyorn–a powerful religious leader from the rival religion Shu-Dereth, and its home nation of Fjordell), and Hrathen’s attempt to convert Arelon to Shu-Dereth, in an effort to spare the nation from Fjordell’s military might. The book centers on three main story-lines: upon arrival in Arelon, Sarene encounters an unsettling discovery about her upcoming marriage; Raoden endures the misfortune of banishment to the once-great city of Elantris and its defunct magics; and Hrathen tries to prevent the destruction of an entire nation–unlike his last assignment, he hopes to conquer a nation through religion instead of revolution.

Like all of Sanderson’s works, Elantris focuses on a unique magic system, bound by Sanderson’s rule that any magic must have an interesting flaw to counter its power. In this case, the magic system involves drawing complex symbols in the air. For example, drawing one complex symbol will allow you to heal the injured, while another might result in instant teleportation, or another in providing the functions of a simple lantern. The flaw of this system, however, is two-fold: its power weakens as the user’s distance from Elantris increases, and even worse, ten years prior, the magic simply stopped working when Elantris fell.

In typical Sanderson fashion, small inconspicuous details matter, providing a satisfying “aha!” moment near the end of the novel. Everything leading to the end is designed to offer hints that, for the most part, are more recognizable in hindsight, yet unlike an episode of HouseCSI or Bones, where the first 38 minutes have little bearing on the final reveal, the book does a good job of building to this climax.

My one critique of Elantris is that it seemed weaker than Sanderson’s other works. It is a good book, but it is apparent that it is his first novel. Of his six books that I have read (granted, three are a trilogy), this one provides the weakest buildup to the plot and is the least riveting. There are great scenes and a high level of satisfaction as characters escape danger or unravel mysteries, but the intrigue and suspense was a slight let-down from my high expectations from his other books. That said, Elantris really was a good book–it just shows how much Sanderson has improved his craft through experience, and possibly mentorship from his publisher, Tor Books.

Who would like this book: Anyone who reads fantasy novels, especially Wheel of TimeLord of the Rings, or any other Sanderson books. I could even see a hint of the Ender franchise in the book (although only a hint).

Who would not like this book: Anyone who hates intrigue because it does not have enough action. If Star Trek is boring because the 42-minute episodes does not have at least 41 minutes of space battles, this this is not the book for you. While it has action, its political intrigue provides the bulk of the plot conflict.

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