Tor, 2005, 622 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-765-35037-8
Hold on to your hats: I’m about to say nice things about a classical genre fantasy novel.
Yes, I know: I’m not supposed to like fantasy, especially if it’s in the overdone “medieval societies, kingdoms, lost magic, palace intrigue” vein. But there are exceptions, and Brandon Sanderson’s Elantris is one of them.
For one thing, it fits in one single volume. Though follow-up stories are certainly possible, Elantris is its own 600-pages beast and it closes on a satisfactory conclusion that doesn’t need a sequel. One-shot novels seem so rare in fantasy that this is a welcome distinction, if not even an innovation.
The theme continues with the book’s opening blurbs, which will really try to make you believe that this is an unusual fantasy novel. No quests! No elves! No mages in robes! And that’s true enough: Elantris manages to avoid the typical quest narrative and keeps the usual genre decorations to a minimum.
And yet, if you look closely at the novel, it’s easy to apply John Clute’s structure of fantasy: You have a kingdom in which magic is thinning away, and protagonists who are actively working at solving the issue, some treating the symptoms while others try to understand the deeper roots of the problem. The entire narrative schematic of the novel is one that points toward healing and redemption —literally in the case of one character and metaphorically for the entire land where Elantris takes place.
But never mind the question of whether Elantris is traditional fantasy or not: The real reason why I’m so pleased with the novel is far less abstract: it’s all about the fun of reading. Sanderson’s clear writing and the strength of his characters make it impossible to put down the novel once it starts going. From the first few pages, Elantris establishes a strong trio of viewpoint characters that will carry us to the end of the story: Raoden, a young prince who wakes up “dead” and is condemned to exile; Sarene, his fiancée (soon to be a “widow”) who’s coming from far away to unite two kingdoms through marriage; and Hrathen, a priest who is sent to the city in order to cleanse its rot. Polished but transparent prose add to the characterization to form the essence of strong storytelling. Clearly, Sanderson’s got some talent if he can make a fan of even anti-fantasy curmudgeons like me.
I particularly enjoyed following the Sarene chapters, as she proves herself a formidable presence in a court where she’s either seen as an interloper, a nonentity or a victim. Trained in the diplomatic arts, she sets in motion a number of intricate schemes even as members of the court underestimate her. There’s dramatic irony is our knowledge that her fiancé is not completely “dead”… and that she even comes to meet him under very strange circumstances. Meanwhile, Raoden wastes no time in exile in trying to solve the mystery of the once-radiant city of Elantris, and Hrathen has plans of his own to take control of the kingdom on behalf of his master. But Raoden’s a goody-goody two-shoe and Hrathen is another one in a long line of unpleasant fantasy priests; it’s really Sarene who ends up forming the backbone of the novel’s appeal.
Strong scenes, terrific descriptions and an eventful plot do the rest: Elantris is the kind of novel that rewards lengthy reading sessions. There’s an intricate relationship at play between the names, magical system and glyphs (complete with graphical appendix!) that proves how much thought went into this novel. That Elantris is a first novel is a minor wonder: The writing is assured, enjoyable and skillful to a degree that confirms why Sanderson has spent two years on the Campbell Award ballot.
Heck, it’s good enough to make me think that I’ve been too quick to dismiss classical fantasy. It certainly leads me to suspect that I’ll be spending some time paying attention to Sanderson’s next few books. The qualities that make Elantris work so well -plot, characterization, prose- are a writer’s strengths, not particularities of genre. This very impressive debut bodes well for the rest of Sanderson’s career… and maybe even for fantasy in general.