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.
I was a bit leery going into Elantris, because I knew it was Sanderson’s first novel. Last month, I read Warbreaker, another early novel, and while I enjoyed it, there was a lot in it that felt amateur and sloppy compared to later novels. I worried Elantris would be the same, if not worse.
My worries, however, were unfounded. Elantris was a brilliant debut novel, and my second-favorite by Sanderson so far. It definitely makes my top books of the year. I am in awe of the amount of imagination and maneuvering that went on in this story. I thought I’d gotten to know Sanderson’s patterns by now, after six other books, but every single thing I suspected ahead of time ended up being wrong. I didn’t see any of the twists and turns coming, not accurately anyway.
Elantris isn’t completely without flaws, though they are small and (for me) easily forgivable. The book was slow to start, but never in a way that made me bored. Many of the character’s names were difficult to remember, particularly for someone like me who is not terribly versed in high fantasy, and for awhile I had trouble remembering the separate religions, cultures, and races. After a hundred pages or so, though, it all came together and I found myself racing through it. By the end, I wanted to read it again already, and even though it’s been a week or two, I still haven’t returned the library’s copy. I need my own!
It’s funny, because in a way, Sanderson uses a very similar formula for all the books I’ve read of his so far. There’s always an honest hero fighting against oppression of some sort, a smart and/or competent heroine who is usually an outsider of some kind, an underdog element, political turmoil usually bordering on or involved in war, and a religious conflict. Yet somehow, despite these being the major elements in all Sanderson’s novels, they are each unique and individual. That says a whole lot about the writer, in my opinion.