Brandon Sanderson, Elantris (2006)

I’ve recently listened to Elantris, Brandon Sanderson‘s ticket to fame and money, and one of the biggest stand-alones in XXI century genre literature.

Oh boy wasn’t it boring…

This was my first novel by Sanderson. I’ve read a couple of short stories, some reviews, and talked about him with a few friends whose opinions varied from “rather good” to “meh”. It created in my mind a picture of someone who is a solid, if not particularly gifted, craftsman (with unbelievable output, his doorstoppers hit bookshops with astonishing regularity).

Oh, there were final Wheel of Time books that he wrote, no matter how much I try to forget the whole WoT disaster, I have to mention them. Sanderson’s bits were better written and structured than Jordan’s, but no less tedious.

After Elantris… well, actually it confirmed my view of Sanderson as an uninspired craftsman, but I perhaps overestimated my own endurance. There are many flawed books that have something in them that keeps me interested. Some brilliant ideas, amateurishly executed, great protagonist, rising above mediocre prose… Sanderson does not make big mistakes, but neither does he take any risks. And produces fantasy without qualities.

Too harsh. But let me defend that opinion before I admit there were some good parts.

Also – I’ve listened to Graphic Audio version and it might have been a mistake. It’s an attempt to create… oh, lets just paste a quote from Wikipedia:

GraphicAudio is an audiobook publishing imprint of The Cutting Corporation. Its tagline is “A Movie In Your Mind”. The GraphicAudio format includes a full cast of actors, narration, sound effects and cinematic music. GraphicAudio has published over 900 action-adventure titles and 40 series in the fantasy, science fiction, post-apocalyptic, comic and western genres.

I like the idea. I’ve listened to parts of (Polish only 😛 ) Witcher novels in this format and it was a great experience. In case of Elantris I found voices in my headphones to be as thoroughly unimpressive as the parts Sanderson was responsible for. With one exception – the narrator was cool, I’d prefer to listen to him reading the entire novel. The rest of the cast was unconvincing and wooden and it took at least half a point from the final score. And I know Graphic Audio is capable of producing good stuff – previews of other audiobooks they included here sounded much better. So maybe the problem is with the novel itself, after all 😉

Elantris is definitely an example of epic fantasy. We have a world where a catastrophe (Reod) disturbed traditional magic that sustained Elantrians – inhabitants of the most beautiful, and powerful, city on the planet – turning their blessings into curses and destroying traditional power balance. A new, unstable kingdom is created by people living in Arelon, country around Elantris that used to live off their godlike neighbours, and its society copes by de-evolving into oligarchy of rich nobles ruling over peasants recently forced into servitude. Architect of this unjust system, bad king Iadon, has a son, good prince Reoden. Then, Reoden is afflicted with Shaod, a mysterious disease turning people info fallen Elantrians – who get exiled into this cordoned-off city, turned into post-apocalyptic violent nightmare. It’s a bummer for Sarene, princess from Teod who travels to Arelon to marry the prince and establish an alliance. Alliance necessary because of a threat of invasion by a Derethi church, oppressive expansionist religion represented by Hrathen, a high-ranking priest sent to Arelon to convert the populace before the inevitable invasion. Due to the specifics of marriage contract, Sarene legally becomes the wife of Reoden, despite him being considered deceased (and she doesn’t now what really happened to him). Reoden tries to build a decent society from the unfortunate people he finds in the fallen city, and re-discover the lost magic of Elantris, Hrathen schemes to replace Arelon’s king with someone willing to convert to his religion, and Sarene tries to prevent that, and, ideally, also replace the king, but with someone decent and willing to end the injustices of the current regime. Elantris the novel consist of the stories of this three characters told in alternate chapters.

It’s sounds ok, if rather generic. But not delivered in monotonous, uninspired prose, with a few ideas hammered into our heads repeatedly. Sanderson does not trust his readers’ intelligence, everything will be explained in simple words. All the tropes are presented in bare form, all the motivations are shallow and obvious. The worldbuilding (with one exception – magic, more about this later) reminds me of some of the worst, formulaic tabletop RPG worlds. Only the worlds of RPGs can be populated by great adventures designed by Game Master, and interesting characters designed by fellow players. Here I had to listen to adventure more predictable than any RPG session I’ve experienced.

Geography of this world is unrealistic, economy barely makes sense, politics is laughable, religion painfully stereotypical… even when author’s intentions are good, he does not go deep enough for the intrigues to be really intriguing. There are good and bad people, and some misguided, most of the problems can be solved by a quick lecture from Good Prince/ess. And they are just so smart, just as we XXI-st century people are, we could solve all the medieval problems like some A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, couldn’t we?

Most annoying for me was Sarene, a caricature of a strong female character. Our plucky heroine made smart not by the qualities of her mind, but by Sanderson making the natives extremely dumb. She’s a stereotype fighting other stereotypes, in the end saved by her prince anyway. To artificially complicate things (and introduce some tension) her smarts are not enough to recognize her de iure husband in the Elantrian she finds herself cooperating with, and he is reluctant to reveal himself turning the novel into a written version of some anime romance intended for high-school girls (I’m not sexist here, anime creators are, to a degree rarely seen these days…).

Not that the prince is any better, disarming his opponents with a smile and superior understanding of the way this simple world works. They are both Mary Sues of the most annoying kind.

This simplistic approach to past/past-based secondary worlds reminded me of low budget tv series pretending to take place in some Dark Ages. Or of movie I hate, Kingdom of Heaven, one of the worst examples of modern artist refusing to understand the time and place they supposedly depict.

Maybe it could be considered YA, with no sex, limited (and never initiated by the good guys) violence, black and white (despite attempts to make it look more complicated) morality and general simplicity – so, YA as a marketing category, not YA as great books for teenagers. I need some Grimdark now, probably something stronger than that big softie, Abercrombie.

Ola wrote, about the characters in Sanderson’s Mistborn:

(…) tepid. Lukewarm. With the depth of a cardboard-cut figure. Underdeveloped…

and complained about tell, don’t show. It’s worse here and I would extend this description beyond just the characters.

What are the strengths of Elantris? The writing is decent, the structure logical and thought-through, there is a clear ending tying-up all the major threads, and most of the elements are at least ok. It’s a safe, long book that could be satisfying for many readers looking for a competent storyteller to occupy their time. For me… the only thing I’d say is really good, and distinguish Elantris from all the mediocre fantasy doorstoppers – Sanderson’s magic system. His approach to magic is very interesting and a perfect example of one of the extreme views of this topic.

There are many great examples of genre fiction depicting magic as something utterly beyond our comprehension, chaotic force that stands directly opposite science and logic. There are writers taking the middle ground, like Neil Gaiman, who claims magic should be internally coherent, but not necessarily obvious to a reader. Sanderson is a pope of magic as precise science, a system that could be directly translated into the mechanics of a tabletop RPG I mentioned earlier.

Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.

Magic as science makes sense, and lets be honest – this is the way any real magic would go in our world. Analysed, catalogued, researched at universities. In the novel, it works, and it’s fun to learn it along with the protagonist.It would be boring if every author did it, but I liked it here.

It was not enough to save the book for me.

Score: 5/10

5 thoughts on “Brandon Sanderson, Elantris (2006)

  1. Oh well, that sounds like a prolonged, tedious and painful, even if not overly cruel torture. I am sure I won’t put myself through it – Mistborn was more than enough for me. As for Mary Sues – a total agreement. The good guys are always so freaking perfect that it makes you nauseous just to read about them. And the magic systems – it seems like that’s the only bit that Sanderson really works on :).


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