Elantris is beautiful, mostly. It is an extraordinary achievement for a debut novelist. Brandon Sanderson enters the epic fantasy fold as a fully developed talent with better pure storytelling chops than many veterans. The novel's plot impresses with its clarity, and Sanderson's attention to character, particularly his skill in taking a collection of stock players and letting them grow into sympathetic people, acts as the hook that keeps you engrossed throughout. It's so frustratingly close to greatness that I was probably more irked than I should have been when, in its final hundred pages, it abandoned the way it had captivated both my emotions and intellect with a story whose conflict mostly centered on a titanic battle of wits between its three principals, and went straight for my limbic system, with bloody battles, hair-raising escapes, nick-of-time rescues, and the mother of all deus ex machinae. All the while leaving behind nagging questions. But the sheer entertainment value of the thing is enormous. It's hard to come away from Elantris anything other than a Brandon Sanderson fan.
There's a lot to admire about Elantris. One is the care with which Sanderson builds his world. Many fantasists agonize over this, but Sanderson just does it. He doesn't heap you with interminable exposition and backstory. He allows his world, its peoples, and most importantly the rules pertaining to its magic, to develop organically as his story draws you in.
The titular walled city was once home to a race of nearly godlike magical beings. Originally just regular human citizens of the kingdom of Arelon, they were transformed by a mysterious and entirely random event called the Shaod, which could strike rich or poor alike. Once transformed, the silvery-skinned Elantrians would abandon their former lives and settle in the idyllic city, where, through their command of the elaborate alphabet of glyphs known as Aons, they would practice their magic, live more or less as benign gods, and bask in the awe of their human neighbors...
Until that fateful day ten years before the novel opens, when something happened all at once to corrupt Elantris's magic and destroy the city. With its once breathtaking architecture rotting beneath thick layers of filth and slime, Elantris is now a place of horror. The Shaod — the transformation that was once a blessing — is now the Reod, a curse turning its victims into little more than the walking dead. Elantris's walls, that once held a magnificent city of light, are now a bleak edifice imprisoning a race of near-zombies and debased savages within shadow-haunted ruins.
As narrative hooks go, you can't do much better than that. The novel opens as Arelon's capital city of Kae, situated in the shadow of Elantris's wall, is facing a whole battery of crises. Its unpopular king, Iadon, has raised most of his money by selling titles to the nobility, essentially turning the nation into a plutocracy. But he has otherwise so thoroughly mismanaged his rule, particularly his own finances, that the crown is threatened by up-and-coming noblemen whose wealth challenges his. The citizens' morale is further torpedoed by the death of Raoden, Iadon's son, considerably more popular and better suited to rule. What the crown has kept secret is that Raoden has not in fact died, but been taken by the Reod, and now lives as one of Elantris's walking dead.
Among those believing Raoden dead is his bride, Sarene, who sails in from the kingdom of Teod shortly before her betrothed's funeral. Her marriage contract still stipulates that she and Raoden are married, despite his recent alleged demise. So she moves into the palace, learning what she can about local politics, while going out of her way to make her intemperate and sexist new father-in-law believe she's too stupid to waste time worrying about. Sarene's concern is the threat poised by the aggressive neighboring nation of Fjordell, whose belligerent, theocratic imperialism will not rest until it absorbs the two remaining kingdoms not under its iron rule, Teod and Arelon. And who should arrive in Kae at the same time as Sarene but Hrathen, a high priest of Fjordell's militant Shu-Dorath church. Hrathen has been given a three-month deadline to convert the population of Kae before Fjordell's armies move in, and he intends to meet it.
Most of the story is hot, buttered four-star Awesome. Its suspense builds from the increasingly tense political chess game the principals find themselves forced to play. Knowing full well what it would mean for Fjordell to succeed in its plans, Sarene joins a group of rebellious nobles in order to thwart Hrathen's plan to put a compliant, converted nobleman on the throne. Hrathen, meanwhile, very quickly realizes the formidable opponent he has in Sarene, and never makes the mistake of falling for her airhead act. Hrathen is an impressively layered character where it would have been all too easy to make him a stereotypical fanatic (though Sanderson does give us one of those, turned up to "11," in Hrathen's subordinate, Dilaf). Hrathen genuinely wants to convert the people of Kae. He doesn't want bloodshed. Yet at the same time, he finds himself questioning the sincerity of his own faith. It's a matter he'll take drastic steps to solve.
Meanwhile, Raoden has been surviving in Elantris (from which it seems surprisingly easy to escape, making me wonder why anyone was still there, to be honest). Taking the nickname Lord Spirit, he manages to shut down most of the gang fighting that has kept the city in a state of anarchy, and helps to wake many of the unfortunate Elantrians from their malaise. They even clean up a section of the city to nearly its former lustre. And all this time, Raoden tries to find the secret of why everything in Elantris went bad. Exactly how and why did the curse happen?
This brings us to the more problematic aspects of Elantris. Though I'll do my best to minimize spoilers, if you want to skip the next two or three paragraphs, then go ahead and err on the side of caution.
There's a reveal concerning that mystery that I won't spoil, but which involves the rather ingenious form of magic, rooted in the Aon glyphs, Sanderson has created here. Once we get that reveal, the solution to the mystery is pretty obvious, and telegraphed so far in advance of when Raoden finally has his "eureka!" moment that you can't help thinking he was rather thick to take so long figuring it out. His solution for dealing with it, also, seems bizarrely abrupt. It plays out in one of those scenes where you go, "That's it? That's all he had to do?" Sanderson's problems with telegraphing outcomes is more pronounced than it should be for the overall health of his book. For instance, consider the early scenes in which Sarene, performing humanitarian deeds as expected of a new widow, decides to take food to the hapless Elantrians, and encounters Raoden, who knows who she is but doesn't reveal his identity to her. (The physical changes that the Reod imposes on its victims makes him unrecognizable to her.) The irony of the situation is so thick it might as well be accompanied by a neon sign flashing "O the irony!" And from that moment, you just know the climax of the book will inescapably involve her finally realizing who the enigmatic Lord Spirit really is, and that she's no widow after all.
Sanderson also shares a quirk with any number of Hollywood screenwriters in that he establishes little details early in the story so they can serve the sole purpose of being there, conveniently to hand, to help the hero when all seems lost. Why, for instance, does Sarene have a nephew who's an autistic savant with the Rain Man gift of memorizing numbers? If you answered, "Because this seemingly useless skill will come in handy for the hero at the moment all seems lost," go to the head of the class.
Finally, there's a regrettable tendency toward author's convenience, inviting unanswered questions. One key plot point involves Hrathen committing a poisoning. But how does he get the potion to his victim? Later, Raoden and a friend escape Elantris in disguise, part of which we are told involved buying clothes in Kae's markets. Where did they get the money?
None of this stuff is exactly devastating (though I ended up docking half a star on balance for them). But given the very real storytelling talent Sanderson displays most of the way, these little peccadilloes feel like things you wish he'd ironed out as an aspiring writer doing workshops. Still, I must admit that while there's an eye-rolling quality to the way the climax juxtaposes so many frantic race-against-time scenes, at least it makes for some balls-out reading. Say what you will about how believable the final chapters of Elantris are, there's no denying they're exciting, delivering an adrenalized Big Finish where so many epic fantasies slouch toward a turgid and formulaic conclusion. As Sanderson was writing a stand-alone novel all along, with no sequel set-up to let him get lazy, perhaps he thought the thing to do was just go for broke. For that, he gets an ovation from me, and a place high on my writers-to-watch list.