Sunday, September 21, 2014

Review: "Elantris" by Brandon Sanderson

Long ago, citizens of Elantris were blessed by the mystical Shaod, changed into shining golden gods when the unpredictable magic took them. But the Shaod has become a plague, turning those it infects into undying lepers. When the crown prince of the neighboring kingdom falls victim, Raoden is declared dead and locked in the now-accursed city to rot--only days before his new bride arrives to marry him.
Legally bound by her vows, Sarene picks up the pieces of Raoden's quest to reform the corruption of his father's reign. But someone else has a different plan to save the kingdom: Hrathen, the high priest of an eerie religion that has swallowed up the rest of the world. Hrathen has been given three months to convert Elantris before his god's armies arrive to destroy it. He intends to save the country that hates and fears him--by any means necessary. 
Meanwhile, within the dead city, Raoden tries to solve the mystery that changed the Shaod into a nightmare plague, before he, too, succumbs to the hunger and the constant pain of his new unlife.
3 out of 5 stars
(grump + breakdown below the cut)
While checking the publish date of Elantris, it came to my attention that Sanderson has churned out roughly one million books in the past ten years. That's impressive, given that they're all of moderate quality (so far as I have read) and also thicker than the average encyclopedia. This also makes the Brandon Sanderson jokes floating around more understandable. (Something something walks into a Baskin-Robbins and comes out with a new system of magic based around 31 flavors...)

In any case, Elantris was his debut novel, as well as the first one I read. I grabbed it out of the sludge of generic SFF books slowly oozing over the "New Releases" shelf of the library (this is why good cover design is important, folks) and, happily, found a perfectly enjoyable story. Not groundbreaking, not haunting, not infinitely memorable, but solidly fun in the manner of a good fantasy adventure. In retrospect, it shows a lot of debut-novel flaws, but nothing that makes it unworthy of a reader's time. 

The book's three narrators divide up the storyline in a genuinely engaging way. Hrathen, the warrior-saint, could have existed in a much better book than this. His chapters remain fresh even when rereading Sarene's entry-level Not Like The Other Girls characterization or Raoden's infallible heroics grows a little stale. He is a well-composed antagonist, un-liked and unlikable, ruthless and manipulative in his methods to convert the country, but desperately, sincerely trying to save it from the imminent (and very real) apocalypse.

Sanderson tries to elevate Elantris above a lot of negative and prejudiced fantasy cliches. Unfortunately--at the time of its composition--he possessed neither the skill nor the emotional understanding to really convey his intentions.

Some examples:
  • Sarene is supposed to be "too old" and "too unattractive" to marry, according to the narrator, but all the other characters find her desirable; likewise her personality is supposedly "harsh and disagreeable," but Sanderson surrounds her with ardent, admiring followers who are constantly swooning over by her intelligence, charisma, charm, etc. 
  • He makes a point of including a nonwhite character in his cast, but makes sure that he has quaint(!) speech patterns and constantly reminds the reader how unlike other members of his race Galladon is, which... is its own stereotype. (Therein lies the problem of tokenism.) 
  • He attempts to subvert questions of class by claiming that any person could become one of the godlike, magically gifted Elantrians, but as soon as he also proposes that every Elantrian was noble, good, and wise, my eyes glaze over at the shallow propaganda. (And no, dear reader, I will never stop ragging on Tigana.) 
  • At one point characters talk about how Fat Isn't Bad, but within another few pages Sarene threatens to throw up at the suggestion she might marry The Fat One, because obviously his characters don't really think fat people should be treated with respect.
Swing and a miss, Sanderson.

His "ensemble cast" scenes creak; his "adorably precocious" child characters ring false. I have no doubts that Sanderson has met children (and known crowds of friends with dynamic interactions), but it's clear that his side characters are puppets dancing upon a plywood stage. Some of these weaknesses are patched in Sanderson's second work, the Mistborn series. Others, I'm still waiting to see fixed. And the sooner he drops the socially-conscientious prince archetype from his repertoire, the better.

But if you haven't noticed by now, dear reader, I like to gripe about books, and I'm hard to please. It's just far easier to poke at a book's flaws than to praise its nonspecific success as a story.

Entry-level social justice and a wooden secondary cast do not detract from the tale Sanderson spins about a cursed city and the various dooms hanging over it. It's not a masterpiece, but it's not the worst work of fantasy. 

Complexity of Writing: 3/5
Quality of Writing: 3/5
Strength of Characterization: 3/5
Logic of Plot Development: 5/5
Evocation of Setting: 4/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 4/5
Resolution of Conflict: 5/5
Emotional Engagement: 3/5
Mental Engagement: 3/5
Bechdel Test: pass?
Diverse Cast: pass
Content Warning: characters using blackface as a disguise, ritual murder of women, fat hatred

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