When it was announced that Robert Jordan's wife had chosen him to write the final volume of The Wheel of Time, Brandon Sanderson became something of a household name in the fantasy scene almost overnight. That's not to discredit the novels that Sanderson had written before this somewhat surprising piece of news, or the fledgling reputation that he'd built, but Sanderson would be the first to acknowledge the boost to his career that the Jordan gig gave him.
I'd read some of the samples of Sanderson's work on his livejournal, and have to say that - in terms of writing - they didn't do a lot for me. Nonetheless, Elantris - his first novel to be published - had a premise that appealed to me. When I saw a hardback copy in a bookshop at a reduced price (due to slight damage to the cover), I snapped it up.
The premise that intrigued me goes as follows: Elantris was a glowing beacon of civilisation, home to beings that were regarded as semi-divine by ordinary humans. Elantrians were highly skilled in the ways of magic, and were semi-immortal. Anyone could become an Elantrian - but only by chance. The transformation was called the Shaod, and it struck seemingly at random, changing the lucky person's life overnight.
When without warning the magic of Elantris failed, the Shaod turned from blessing to curse - it turned its victims into shadows of their former selves, imprisoning them in bodies that would not heal and were horrible to look upon. These unfortunate souls were cast into Elantris - once a city of beauty and wonder, now a decaying nightmare of insanity and despair.
The novel begins with Raoden, Prince of the kingdom of Arelon, waking one morning to find the Shaod has taken him. His royalty doesn't save him - he's cast into Elantris like other Shaod victims, not long before Sarene - Princess of Teod and his betrothed - arrives in the country for their wedding. As Raoden struggles to survive in Elantris and Sarene tries to pick up the pieces of her shattered life, Hrathen - a high priest of Jaddeth - arrives with the intention of converting Arelon and making it part of Fjordell's growing empire...
With Elantris, Sanderson has managed to conjure up a novel that feels fresh. The premise is clearly based on the legend of Atlantis, but it manages to avoid many of the more tiresome clichés that litter the genre. Sanderson does an impressive job of juggling the various strands of the plot, and manages to deftly explore several political and religious themes. The political intrigue of the subplot adds considerable depth to the novel, and helps to keep things interesting (to the extent where I felt it was actually more interesting than what Raoden was up to in Elantris).
Sanderson displays some solid world-building skills, with the symbolic magic system a particular triumph. The cast list is also impressive; Sanderson manages to imbue each main character (and many of the minor characters) with depth and emotion. Raoden, Sarene and Hrathen are strong, engaging POV characters, though for me Hrathen is head and shoulders above the others. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing his feelings and opinions change over the course of the novel, and seeing the problems that this caused to both him and his mission. I feared that Sarene would turn out to be a bit of a 'headstrong young woman' cliché, but she was much more than that.
I liked Sanderson's prose - clean, smooth and accessible. The short chapters as well were welcome, and gave the novel a good feel of pace. For a debut novel, Elantris is remarkably well written - by that I don't just mean the prose itself, but the way the plot is constructed and the fine balance Sanderson has struck between the POVs. Elantris may be Sanderson's first published novel, but it's not the first novel he ever wrote, and it shows: you feel that the skills Sanderson displays in Elantris have been honed over a dozen previous projects.
The best thing about Elantris is the electric climax to the novel. My intention to have an early night was blown out of the water by the excellence of the book's last fifty or so pages. Truths are uncovered, plot twists are revealed, the body count grows...and it all made for a highly enjoyable reading experience.
Flaws are few and far between. My only real complaint is that Raoden is too perfect. I mean, the guy barely makes a single mistake the entire time. He seems to have everything - leadership qualities, intelligence, wit, resourcefulness, and so on. I would have liked his story to have been a bit more of a struggle, like Sarene's and Hrathen's. After the Shaod took him and his life turned inside out, Raoden shows little emotional response and I found that a bit hard to take. The fact that his father (the king) had made no attempt to help him didn't seem to bother him, and he seemed to take to Elantris like a fish to water - it should have been far harder than that. A little vulnerability wouldn't have gone amiss.
I found the explanation of why the Elantrians' magic stopped working to be clever and original, but couldn't believe the Elantrians didn't figure this out, given their high intelligence. Still, a relatively minor quibble.
All things considered, Elantris is a fresh, promising debut novel and I look forward to checking out more of Sanderson's work.