Length: 615 pages, standard paperback page size/font
It seems like I've got a cursed relationship with Brandon Sanderson. I started out really liking his work on finishing up the Wheel of Time series, then I thought he was "just" a very good author after reading the Mistborn series. Now, I'd take a lateral step on that opinion which is actually kind of a step backwards, because I'd say he's a very good author who needed some time to figure out how to make his writing truly enjoyable. Elantris was Sanderson's first published novel, and it definitely showed that he's got talent, even if it also drew an unfortunate amount of attention towards his shortcomings, too.
I'm getting ahead of myself, though.
If nothing else, Elantris has an ambitious approach, in that it has three protagonists who get thrown in the reader's face more or less right from the start, with the perspective changing at the start of each chapter for roughly the first half of the book.
The first protagonist is Raoden, the prince of Arelon who's struck by the Shaod. Up until ten years into the book's past, that would've been pretty great, since it would've made him into a literally glowing demigod. Unfortunately, in the book's present day, the Shaod is kind of fucked and instead turns people into mummy-esque abominations. It's actually a delightfully horrifying concept, since they retain their nervous system functions while ceasing to heal, so even the tiniest aches or injuries become a persistent pain that never goes away, with the only apparent sources of relief being either to die (via decapitation or immolation, and boy would anyone be pissed if the latter didn't quite work out) or to abandon your sanity. Worse yet is that the Elantrians (as those who've gone through the Shaod are known, on account of being exiled to the city of Elantris) still feel hunger, too, and the only source of food for the city is whatever pittance of an offering basket is given to new exiles before they're forced into the city.
Most of the Elantrians are rather depressed about their condition, understandably, but Raoden is terminally cheerful. Upbeat and positive enough to make the reader wonder if he's still entirely sane, Raoden puts his princely experience to use in taking on the responsibility of trying to lead the Elantrians out of their sorry state and back into being a functional society.
Oh, yeah, also, thanks to that whole "glowing demigod" thing, the Elantrians can do magic by drawing glyphs, only none of the surviving Elantrians know how to actually make use of that anymore. Raoden develops an obsession with figuring out how to use their magic again since, you know, it's fucking magic.
The second protagonist is Sarene, a princess from Teod, who was supposed to get into a political marriage with Raoden in order to unify their countries as the last two places in the world that haven't been assimilated into the Fjorden empire. Sadly, the Shaod struck Raoden while Sarene was on her way to actually meet him for the first time, and since going through the Shaod is considered to be the same as dying, Sarene arrives to find herself a widow rather than a wife. She's really kind of a shit character, since her driving characteristics for most of the book are being a know-it-all who CLEARLY knows what's best for everyone else and being a bitch who stirs up trouble with King Iadon (Raoden's father) and Hrathen (the third protagonist, who I'll get to shortly) just because...well, a girl's got to fill her time somehow, right?
As the story goes on, she does get rounded out somewhat as she reveals (mostly just to the reader) that she's actually quite self-conscious about how nobody wanted to marry her aside from one guy who died (as far as she knows) before they could actually have their wedding. It's an attempt to make her more relatable, I suppose, but it falls flat because of how much of a bitch she is. Maybe if that side of her had been revealed in a clear way earlier on instead of just being hinted at during her magical phone calls with her father, it would've been more effective. Instead, I hated her so much by that point that I was glad she was sad about nobody loving her in a wifely way.
I know I stepped aside to criticize Sanderson's execution during my last review of one of his books, and I'm compelled to do so again now. Characters don't have to be likeable all the time to be good characters. In fact, characters don't have to likeable at all if the author can make readers love to hate them, but I digress. If a protagonist is going to be written in a way that makes the reader dislike them, though, it's important to also introduce some sort of redeeming characteristics fairly early on. Otherwise, the reader will come to hate that character so much that any attempts to offset that will be starting from such a handicap that they'll be doomed to fail.
Getting back to where I was, though, Sarene also suffers from being boring. Raoden is some kind of living zombie king who's trying to rediscover magic and unite his (new) people. Hrathen is a rare character who's able to walk the line of being a reasonable religious zealot, plus he's the only one whose actions are related directly to the main conflict of the plot for most of the book. Sarene is just some stuck-up woman who pretty much starts trouble because she's bored. And to help out the common people, or so she claims, but really, it felt like it was mostly because she didn't have anything else to occupy herself with. She's the most realistic of the protagonists, I suppose, but in this instance, that's not a good thing.
Anyway, since I've already mentioned him a few times, I might as well actually talk about Hrathen. He's a high-ranking priest of Shu Dereth, the official religion of the theocratic Fjorden empire, and he's been sent to Arelon in order to bring it into the empire. Shortly before the book, Hrathen had orchestrated the fall of the Duladel republic, inciting a bloody revolution which ended with absorption into the Fjorden empire. Despite seeing it as his holy purpose to bring belief in Shu Dereth to the whole world, he's actually haunted by the bloodshed that occurred in Duladel, so he's made it his goal to try leading a peaceful usurping in the three-month window of time that Wyrn (the leader of both Shu Dereth and the Fjorden empire) has given Hrathen to succeed if he wishes to avoid a full-scale invasion by Fjorden's military.
Now, something that I really liked about Hrathen was that he's actually a very logical and calculating character. It's not something that I'd been expecting from a devoted priest whose first thoughts upon coming to Arelon were that, by the time he was done, the people would revere him as their savior. Frankly, he was my favorite of the protagonists because he didn't spend a huge chunk of the book being either a fount of boundless optimism or a total bitch before developing into a well-rounded character. He actually shows flaws and other humanizing aspects from quite early on, which is a refreshing difference from the other two. The other thing working in his favor was what I mentioned before about his actions actually being related to the main conflict of the plot. Raoden and Sarene are both kind of doing their own things, and neither is particularly important until halfway or more through the book. Hrathen, on the other hand, is actively trying to prevent the massacre of the people of Arelon from start to finish.
It might be an obvious thing to say, but it helps the reader get invested in a character when that character is doing things that are important.
The plot wasn't really anything special to me. While not bad by any means, so much of the book is dedicated to Raoden and Sarene farting around until they stumbled onto the main plot that I found myself just tolerating it in order to get to more Hrathen-focused content. Sadly, once this does happen, another problem emerges, though in this case, it's a problem of Sanderson's rather than of this specific book.
There's a general concept in fiction that details which don't become relevant shouldn't be included. While that's fine for longer works where things have time to become important without feeling contrived or otherwise forced, I disagree vehemently with that concept when it comes to a single book. It's important to have some details that are there just for general world-building flavor, if not as red herrings, because otherwise, things become predictable in a bad way. See, I was able to guess at a lot of the major plot developments in the Mistborn books, but that was enjoyable because they weren't obvious "process of elimination" guesses. In Elantris, though, it was easy to see about 99% of the ending coming by simple virtue of remembering what random details/characters/etc. hadn't filled a plot-relevant role yet. The 1% exception was something of a Deus Ex Machina moment, which is rendered all the more dissatisfying because of how everything around it was at least logical, if not exactly fulfilling.
The whole thing ends up being something of a meta experience for being an Elantrian, now that I think about it, since it's not entirely unlike having a hunger that goes unfulfilled forever. Sanderson is a good enough writer that he creates as interesting story, despite hiding it behind bullshit with Raoden and Sarene, but the ending just left me feeling empty, as if I'd put all of the time and effort into reading the book without getting anything truly enjoyable out of it. I still maintain that Sanderson is a good author, and he shows enough skill in the good parts of this book to back up that opinion. If he was some brand new author (which he was at the time), I'd still give Elantris the same rating, but I'd say that it shows some promise for future works from the same author. As it stands, though, there are other books by Sanderson that are simply better. I'd suggest trying them rather than this one.
Length: 615 pages, standard paperback page size/font