I am finding this novel a very difficult novel to review. I managed to type the title on this entry and then a lot of time passed; the fan clicking overhead, the birds outside chirping, and me: utterly lost in my own head trying to sort out some thoughts that maybe are not specifically about Elantris, but Elantris was the catalyst. Elantris by Brandon Sanderson was published in 2005. It is Sanderson’s first published novel and I distinctly remember reading somewhere that he finished the first draft, at least, prior to 2000.
[Seriously, I cannot emphasize enough how many times the screen-saver on this laptop has auto-popped while I have sat here after typing a sentence on this post.]
At those times when a situation seems perplexing, I can rely on my Aristotelian traditions and look at things per se; cutting out the inessential appearances for just the actual reality. Did I like this novel – yes or no? Yes. My answer comes without hesitation because it would be untrue to say that I did not like it. All right, what is the thing that I liked best about the novel? I liked that its a “soap opera.” What did I dislike the most about the novel? Pacing. Who was my favorite character? Probably Roial. Would I recommend this novel to others? Yes, its a long novel so I would not recommend it to folks that I know who…….. do not have the attention span that would be needed.
The novel is a glorified soap opera. I think most of the novels in the fantasy genre are this way. And I recognize I have introduced the term “soap opera” as if the meaning is utterly clear. Well, when I say that term I refer to melodramatic scenes and characters within the sweeping “operatic” manner in which the timeline unfolds. Take any fantasy novel and write the main events as non-adjectival, no qualifier points. Tell the “story” of the novel as if you are an historian writing as impartially as you can a hundred years after the fact. In this story, we could perhaps bullet point:
- marriage between prince and foreign princess
- religious leader arrives for mission in city
- unexpected medical event occurs
Far less of us readers would read that novel – because then, it is not entertaining at all. Its research, knowledge, etc. If readers are interested in history, they want history – and usually with a depth of research and analysis folded into excellent presentation. Readers drawn to fantasy recognize the soap opera styling and want to read about hugely melodramatic magical events and characters.
However: and this is a stern statement to my fellow readers – do not pick up this fantasy [soap opera] and complain about it being a fantasy [soap opera].
The skeleton of this novel is that it is a zombie story placed in the context of typical nation-state wrangling for control. Drive a thick beam of religion through the whole thing and that’s Elantris. So, at its very base, this is a rather simple novel. We should expect, and we do indeed get, a lot of political machinations, religious fervor and positioning, and a generally “mysterious” situation that is both key and not at all vital to the story.
One of my good friends wrote a blog review (from 2017) wherein they describe the novel as underwhelming. They felt the author took no risks and the book ended up rather monotonous and mediocre. They gave it a 5 of 10 marks. That’s not a spectacular rating, indeed. However, I do have one very picky point to make: my friend did not actually read the novel… it was an audiobook. I strongly assert that entirely changes the novel. Nevertheless, I am going to say that some of the criticisms are valid.
Because the whole book is based on the political maneuvering of the city-states, there is a lot of potential for the author to really grab these concepts and wrangle them into exciting, intricate, and maybe even controversial postures. Instead, there seems to be a lot of hand-waving at political problems, making it read less like Plato/Socrates and more like Cratylus. Our one political expert in the novel, Sarene, does have brief moments of fiery political opinion – but its incredibly short lived and rather more emotional than substantive. Like my friend said, no risks were taken. So tell us, Sanderson, which political schema is the strongest, which is the best, which do you prefer, which are we going to experiment with in this book, which one of these is any different from the others? Instead, we are somewhat led to believe the state Fjordell is run by brutal leaders, but that may or may not be truly bad. We never learn much detail about that place, anyway.
Similarly with the religious aspects – and there is a heavy amount of those in this book. Now, Sanderson admits that his personal religious lifestyle does allow him to consider working various religious situations into his fiction. I do not think he said anywhere that he is peppering his novels with his own religious viewpoints – you know, such as I call agenda fiction. However, I do think that if an author is going to heavily rely on religion as a storytelling prop – and make it such a large portion of a novel – then they also need to make the religions come alive, be vibrant, be distinctive. Frankly, as with the politics, he took no risks. More or less, the three religions in the novel are all the same, maybe differing in practice just enough to provide one with more motive than the others for being a “bad guy.” But even that is not convincing, its just plausible. Sanderson wrote a couple of places online, at least, wherein he lets readers have a little insight into his religious storyline:
However, if you are going to run into this sort of territory and you want to really make your characters’ thoughts and actions meaningful, get into the religion and hammer it out, drive it home, color it up. Taking no risks with it causes the whole novel to feel a lot less impactful than its potential obviously showed.
Do not get me wrong – I absolutely do not want chapters and chapters of info-dumping and vague pontificating on the topics of religion and politics. Yuck.
None of this is bad writing, though. It just is not very lively writing. It tends to be somewhat dull and measured. And being very measured makes the pacing seem very, very, very (600 pages very) slow. That being said, I am comfortable with the fantasy qua soap opera scenario and so I was quite content, though not enthralled, to follow the three main characters. The novel is told in chapter points-of-view of Raoden, Hrathen, and Sarene. I discovered (according to the All Wise Internet) that most readers disliked Sarene. She was my second favorite character. A lot of readers just did not like this or that about her. I liked her because she is too good to be true. She’s really impressive – and she always, really, lands on her feet – like a cat! Readers found her ridiculous because she seems to have endless amounts of willing helpers for no real reason. I liked this character, though, and while she is not entirely excusable, she is likeable.
Raoden is the character I liked least. I mean, maybe even more than the bad guy. I found Raoden quite toxic and annoying and tedious. Of the three chapters, I dreaded reading his the most.
Hrathen is actually the character that seems the most legit. He is at once arrogant and yet insecure. He struggles with obedience and faith and job duties. He has failures in his past as-well-as successes that now he feels are failures. He is a dynamic character and how he ends and whom he falls in love with – yes, other readers found this eye-rolling and obnoxious, but I really enjoyed it. Again, its a soap opera, and I loved this element. It made me a happy reader. Go away you bitter, sour reader-grouches; y’all know this was utterly suitable for soaps!
Now, chapter 38 came out of nowhere for me. I was thoroughly surprised. I did not see that coming. So, when I got to chapter 38, I put the book down and commented on how surprised I was. I suspect it is because Sanderson’s measured writing in this one lulled me a bit and then surprise! I guess other readers might have suspected. But you know, and then this whole thing went sideways – yet again, so it really seemed inauthentic of Sanderson to have done that to me. But of course, it is TOTALLY what I would expect in a soap opera.
Poor author. His first published book sold well, got a massive amount of readers, but it also opened him to a wealth of criticism. Its over 600 pages so it gives critical readers lots of fodder for their expert (and non-expert) complaints. At the end of the day, its easy to pull out the rapier and critique like we are all writing for The New Yorker. We are not. We are just readers that lounge in our chairs and kibitz about books. And that is precisely what the writers and publishers want. Its an industry, is it not?
Elantris is not, absolutely not, a bad read. If you want a bad read, I am sure I can provide some awful stinkers for you to give yourself papercuts over. Is it a great book? No. For the most part it is above-average, never taking risks, and very measured. I mean, but for a first published novel an author could do worse than be told his writing is “too measured.” There is lots of potential here where it could have been beyond great, even. The readers see that potential, though, and maybe that is why Sanderson has such a fanclub. There seem to be some high expectations put on this author for some reason. Hrathen could have been one of the greatest ever: whispered in the list of Raistlin, Drizzt, and Allanon. I am glad I met him and hung out with him every few chapters for awhile, but I feel we were robbed of a very epic character.
I recommend it to all fantasy readers. Its an above-average novel with plenty of soap opera moments and the pacing is slow enough to make you regret your choice in books by page 250. However, in for a penny-in for a pound, there are rewards to be had here and most soaps feel interminable, right?!