Once again, Brandon Sanderson blew me away with his impeccable characters and world building.
Elantris was the capital of Arelon: gigantic, beautiful, literally radiant, filled with benevolent beings who used their powerful magical abilities for the benefit of all. Yet each of these demigods was once an ordinary person until touched by the mysterious transforming power of the Shaod. Ten years ago, without warning, the magic failed. Elantrians became wizened, leper-like, powerless creatures, and Elantris itself dark, filthy, and crumbling.
Arelon’s new capital, Kae, crouches in the shadow of Elantris. Princess Sarene of Teod arrives for a marriage of state with Crown Prince Raoden, hoping — based on their correspondence — to also 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. So Sarene decides to use her new status to counter the machinations of Hrathen, a Fjordell high priest who has come to Kae to convert Arelon and claim it for his emperor and his god.
But neither Sarene nor Hrathen suspect the truth about Prince Raoden. Stricken by the same curse that ruined Elantris, Raoden was secretly exiled by his father to the dark city. His struggle to help the wretches trapped there begins a series of events that will bring hope to Arelon, and perhaps reveal the secret of Elantris itself.
It’s no secret that I love Brandon Sanderson’s writing…a lot. Elantris only increased my respect for him as a writer and my need to read everything he’s written.
Elantris is told from three alternating points of view: Sarene, Raoden, and Hrathen. Though stories with different POVs usually annoy me, I loved every POV in Elantris, and I never found myself bored by any of their plot lines.
Sarene was my favorite POV. She is strong and incredibly smart, and she stands up for herself without being the stereotypical, sassy YA heroine. But her character also has deep-seated insecurities surrounding her femininity and her place in royal society. While these worries could have come across patronizing or sexist, for Sarene they felt real and honest. Her desire to be loved gave her character depth and nuance instead of making her seem weak or needy.
Raoden, crown prince turned plague-ridden exile, was my second favorite character. I loved his down-to-earth honesty and his belief in the goodness of human nature. He takes it upon himself to save the damned Elantrians from themselves, regardless of their plague. His character never felt cheesy or overdone. Raoden is simply a natural leader with an optimistic heart.
Hrathen was a fascinating character. He starts off the book a clear villain, but as the story progresses, it becomes clear that he cannot be so easily defined. His goals run counter to those of Raoden and Sarene, but he is not inherently evil. He believes that he is saving the country, and he is just as brilliant as Sarene.
Sarene and Hrathen covertly battled each other for control of Arelon’s political world. While many books try to depict political intrigue, I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that accomplished it so profoundly. Reading Elantris is like being in the middle of a chess game, and I was always surprised by the amazing power plays that Sarene and Hrathen dueled with. There is a constant feeling of uncertainty, though I was never confused as to what each character was doing and I could always keep track of what was going on.
In her struggle to keep Arelon on a positive path, Sarene befriended a group of nobles that had formerly plotted with Raoden to change the political landscape of the country. (I know, it sounds confusing, but everything works together really well.) The nobles were an amazing group of characters, even if I sometimes had trouble keeping their names straight.
Meanwhile, Raoden was stuck in Elantris, the cursed city filled with people who have succumb to a mysterious plague that used to turn people into gods. Raoden starts to take control of the city, trying to help the Elantrians rediscover their humanity.
I loved the way that the Elantris plot line talked about the definition of humanity and ways to survive ordeals. Sanderson’s writing never condemns the cursed people, and through Raoden’s eyes, the reader is able to see the grimy city in a new, gorgeous light. On a basic level, Elantris is a city of zombies, but it became so much more than that.
Raoden also investigated the secret of why Elantris stopped being a city of the blessed and turned to a city of the cursed. I loved the way that the mystery slowly unfolded, and the “solution” to the puzzle was really satisfying and surprising.
Romance does bloom between Raoden and Sarene. They were betrothed for political reasons, but even before they met in person, they could tell they might be able to fall in love. Of course, circumstances got in the way, but the subtle romance that grew between them was sweet and perfect. It isn’t a major part of the plot, but it helped round out the story and put a smile on my face.
As this is Brandon Sanderson, the writing was great. I am definitely biased, but I love his style of prose. The world building is intense: he lays out a world with at least three religions, at least five named countries, three distinct cultures, and a whole slew of political alliances…and yet, I rarely struggled to keep everything straight.
Elantris has a somewhat slow plot, which from a glance at other Goodreads reviews bothered other people. However, since I have read other books by him and expected a slower story, the pacing didn’t bother me. There was so much going on in the story that a faster pace would have made it hard to keep everything straight, and anyway, I was so entranced by the story that I never felt bored.
For fans of Brandon Sanderson—and really, fans of fantasy in general—this is a must-read. The characters are old enough to connect with fans of adult novels, but also young enough that I didn’t fell like I’d strayed too far from my usual YA. The world-building is impeccable and the story is beautiful and complex. I can’t recommend it enough.