|Synopsis||Raoden, the prince of Arelon, is cursed and exiled to the city of Elantris. While he struggles to make the most out of a living hell, his fiancée Sarene, who believes him to be dead, struggles to protect the kingdom from both its incompetent king and the militaristic religion that has set its sights on Arelon.|
|Length||Print: 581 pages, Audiobook: 28h 42m|
Elantris is Brandon Sanderson’s debut novel. It takes place on the planet Sel, and from what I understand, is one of the earliest stories in the Cosmere’s chronology. Writing this review sent me down so many rabbit trails about the Cosmere that helped me see how this book affects later ones. I’m amazed at the complexity of it all, and knowing that this book is so early on in his career — though it’s his first published book, it’s not his first ever — makes me admire him even more. Few writers could hope to build a universe as complex and cohesive as the Cosmere. So, let’s get to the review and see how it all began.
Language: I don’t recall any point of concern here. There are fake swear words in the fictional languages, but I don’t remember any real-world instances.
Sexual content: As with most of Sanderson’s novels, this book is clean. Aside from subtle jokes and references, there is no sexual content in the book.
Violence: For most of the book, there are only brief instances and discussions of violence. Elantrians have their necks broken and are burned at the stake. There are battle scenes later in the book with more gruesome deaths, but nothing overly graphic. A character commits suicide.
Spiritual content: Religion plays a vital role in the story. Ten years prior to the events in the book, the Elantrians were viewed and worshiped as gods. One of the major characters hopes to convert as many people of this foreign nation as possible before his leader, the prophet of his god Jaddeth, takes it by force. One character is found guilty of committing human sacrifice. There are too many other elements to list here, but I will be discussing those other aspects in the review.
Positive themes: Major themes of the book include friendship, overcoming prejudices, and self-sacrificial love.
Note: This review is for the tenth anniversary edition, which from my understanding, has some editorial differences from the original.
Elantris was a legendary city throughout history. Its inhabitants were all regular people once, but a transformation called The Shaod turned them into godlike beings — nearly immortal, able to use magic, and superior in every way to normal humans. Then a cataclysm known as the Reod turned the divine Elantrians into cursed, living corpses. Magic disappeared, and the Shaod became a curse, dooming the victim to an eternity of isolation within the sludge-covered city. Elantrians suffer from insatiable hunger and perpetual pain as wounds never heal or even stop hurting.
The book starts with Raoden, prince of the kingdom Arelon, waking up to discover that the Shaod transformed him overnight. The king exiles him to Elantris, and he quickly discovers that an Elantrian’s existence is basically a living hell. Control of the city is mostly divided between three rival gangs, and they are all harsh to newcomers. Raoden decides to take on the monumental task of restoring the city to as much of its former glory as possible.
Sarene, who the next chapter follows, is the princess of the kingdom of Teod, and is Raoden’s fiancée. The only problem is under Arelene law, she is for all intents and purposes married to Raoden already, despite not having met him yet. She learns the moment she arrives in Arelon that Raoden has suddenly and mysteriously died. Now she’s bound by law to Arelon as the prince’s widow.
The antagonist steps onto the stage in the third chapter. Hrathen, a high-ranking follower of the Derethi religion, arrives in Arelon with the purpose of spreading the religion of Shu-Dereth to the entire kingdom. Wyrn, the head of his religion, has given him three months to convert the nation. Should he fail, Wyrn will destroy Arelon.
From the beginning, it’s clear that this book was early on in Sanderson’s career. Overall, the beginning chapters feel less polished and a bit more rushed. As the story progresses, however, he gets a better handle on the pacing and maintains it well.
As fascinating as the worldbuilding is, the characters are the best part of the book. Raoden is an honorable man who finds himself in a terrible situation, but he does everything he can to make the best of it. Sarene is similarly noble, but she finds herself in an utterly different sort of difficult situation. As a widow who never met her husband, she’s bound to a foreign country’s politics. Yet she does everything she can to improve Arelon’s situation in honor of Raoden.
Hrathen is an interesting character in his own way. He has a misguided understanding of his religion, and though he has good intentions, he takes questionable avenues to do it. For example, he tells one of his followers that the first step in taking control of a nation is, “you find someone to hate.” Later, he says, “you will find that hate can unify people more quickly and more fervently than devotion ever could.”
The side characters are just as good. Galladon and Roial are two of my favorites. And then, of course, there is Hoid, the Stan Lee of the Cosmere. I’m always on the lookout for Hoid whenever I read a Cosmere book, and he makes an appearance here as well.
Though obviously not exact representations, certain aspects of the story’s religions seem to have parallels with real world ones. The religion known as the Jeskeri Mysteries is a cult that, along with practicing human sacrifice, is more astrological in nature, similar to ancient paganism. Sarene, an adherent of Shu-Korath, would be Catholic. The leader of the church, known as The Patriarch, is essentially the Pope. Meanwhile Hrathen — follower of Shu-Dereth — would be a Mormon. The head of that religion, a man called Wyrn, is said to be the prophet of their god Jaddeth. It’s an interesting dynamic of the book that I really enjoyed.
The relationship between the spiritual nature of magic, the Elantrians, and the teachings of Shu-Dereth drive the story. Because religion is part of the fabric of the narrative, I don’t think it would be inaccurate to describe this as a religious novel. It’s not preaching any real-world religion, but that doesn’t take away from the nature of the book.
Several times in the second half, the book managed to get emotional reactions out of me. Not a lot of novels manage that, and I didn’t expect this one to do so. The last quarter of the book in particular was beautiful. There is a romance-centric subplot, as well, and it’s very well-written and wholesome.
One of my biggest complaints is that there were a few things that felt almost pointless to me. There is a recurring practice throughout the middle section of the book that didn’t have much of a payoff. During the climax, there is one point where it appears we’ll see the purpose, but it doesn’t amount to much at all. In the grand scheme, it isn’t a huge deal, but it did stand out as a weaker aspect of the book.
I have read several of Brandon Sanderson’s novels, and this is the first one that didn’t hook me early on. Despite the interesting premise, charming characters, and great worldbuilding, it took me about half the book to really become invested in it all. That is my biggest complaint with the book. Because I’ve read The Stormlight Archive, I expect a Sanderson novel to have a slow start. I can forgive rocky beginnings as long as they build to an amazing climax. But those books drew me in and made me care almost right away, unlike this book.
Brandon Sanderson is a master of setups and payoffs, and even a book as early as Elantris is no exception. The climax isn’t perfect, due to the one weakness I mentioned earlier. However, it’s still fantastic, and worth getting through the rougher first half. There were also plenty of twists that took me by surprise.
Elantris is not my favorite of Brandon Sanderson’s books. However, it is still a great book and worth the time investment. As a standalone novel, it’s a good starting point for someone interested in getting into his works. And for fans wanting to experience the Cosmere in its entirety, it’s full of interesting implications for other books.
+ Wonderful characters
+ Interesting religious dynamic
+ Splendid worldbuilding
- Hard to get into at the beginning
- A couple minor payoffs fall flat
The Bottom Line
Whether you're already a fan of the author, or trying his books out for the first time, Elantris is well worth the read.