Friday, 1 June 2012

Elantris: Sanderson's Stepping Stone to Awesome


Elantris was the city of gods on earth. When ordinary people were taken by the Shaod, a random state of transformation, they underwent the transition from human to all-powerful deity, and moved into the glowing white city of Elantris. There, they were able to provide the people of the surrounding nations with healing, food and guidance, and they lived as the glorified gods they had become. Elantris was a thriving metropolis whose beauty and power was unrivalled, and the Elantrians were benevolent, unsurpassed leaders.  

Ten years before the story begins, the Reod occurred. Instead of transforming random people into beautiful and magical Elantrians, the Shaod now seems to turn them into animated corpses. Elantris faded from brilliant white to black, and its walls, once iridescent with an innate glow, are now covered with black sludge.

Prince Raoden of Kae is taken by the Shaod a week before his politically advantageous marriage to Princess Sarene of Teod. Thrown into Elantris, he endeavours to lift the quality of life for the people trapped inside, and slowly establishes a revolution. Meanwhile, Princess Sarene, bound to Raoden despite his apparent death, travels to Kae to formally mourn the husband she never met. While there, she herself begins a revolution of sorts, albeit a quieter one, seeking to overthrow the capital-driven King Iadon and to implement a more utilitarian government for the people of her new nation. Add to this a maniacal religious faction seeking to seize control of the nation’s reign, and the scene is set for some serious political conflict.  

I very much enjoyed Elantris as a novel. However, it didn’t come close to meeting the high expectations I had established for Sanderson after reading Mistborn first. While characterisation was undoubtedly a strong point again, I felt that several characters were close to becoming clich├ęd. This was particularly true of Sarene, tall and rebellious princess of Teod.  I admired Sanderson’s obvious intention in creating a strong, independent female character, but I feel that the value of this was depleted by how strong and independent Sarene is. Compared to Vin, who is strong and brave, but who is also realistically flawed, Sarene seems a little exaggerated. She’s prone to entering into political arguments with her male companions, teaches the silly, vapid women of court how to fence instead of cross-stitch, and is intent on establishing herself as a political powerhouse amongst the men of court. Of course, these are noble attributes in a female fantasy character – they just aren’t unique. I was further disappointed in Sarene when her self-doubts began to surface; she is self-conscious about her gangly frame and outspoken, rebellious nature, and fears that no man will ever want to marry her. Despite her apparently prodigious fencing ability, she is in constant need of physical protection from men in a variety of situations. Although she has political aspirations, and is successful in nurturing the seeds of dissidence amongst potential rebels, Sarene seems incapable of actioning her political ideas. Rather, it is the men in the novel who carry out Sarene’s work for her, undermining her capacity for political success. During many of the conversations she has with male antagonists, she puts on an air of stupidity, feigning ignorance instead of standing her ground as an equal of the men in the novel. And, to top it all off, when she finally reveals her intelligence to the king she has been fooling, she does so in a fit of hysterical screaming.

As for the plot, Elantris is blink-and-you’ll-miss-it action-packed. Somehow, in about 600 pages, Sanderson manages to cover off the establishment of New Elantris, the decline of Old Elantris, the political overhaul of Kae, the threatening of Teod, the religious domination by the Shu-Dereth and the romance (yup, romance) between Sarene and Raoden. With such a rich social, political and religious background to explore, it felt a bit rushed being squeezed into a stand-alone volume. I feel that it may have been more immersive if it were lengthened into a trilogy. I know Sanderson has mentioned a planned sequel to Elantris, but I feel that the novel alone has enough in it to substantiate a trilogy in and of itself.

As you can imagine, my response to Sarene did put a dampener on Elantris for me, but that’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the book at all.  Much like Mistborn, it’s highly accessible fantasy that is character driven, and that features an interesting magic system.
  
It’s very important to note that Elantris was Brandon Sanderson’s first novel. This allows for a somewhat different interpretation of Sarene; Sanderson’s intention of creating a strong, vulnerable and accessible female protagonist is only tentatively explored in Elantris, but realised in Mistborn, so I still see Elantris as a highly valuable part of his catalogue, and an excellent book overall. I am glad that I read it after Mistborn, so that I can understand the development Sanderson underwent as an author between the two books. He remains my favourite author currently. 

I am currently reading Warbreaker (and have already made some interesting observations about his female characters in this volume!), and intend to move on to Way of Kings shortly after. Before my Sanderson material runs out, however, I may squeeze in the first of the Dark Tower books, or perhaps Brent Weeks’ Night Angel trilogy. After tossing up whether to read 1Q84 for a few weeks, I decided on downloading the audiobook as a middle ground. I also treated myself to Tamora Pierce’s Lioness Quartet, and am looking forward to some lazy nostalgic reading later in the week.

Tell me – how did you feel about Elantris? Do you think I was too harsh on Sarene? Do you think it would have been better as a trilogy?