Wednesday, 17 June 2015

The Blog Fantastic 036: Elantris Review (Unread 011)

I don’t read as many books as I would like to, especially in certain genres. There’s too little time to get around to everything that interests me. Because of that, sometimes I try a book by an author who has caught my attention only to be disappointed by the sample of their work. It sucks when that happens, and it happens regularly. That’s why I’m thrilled when I discover a writer whose work I really enjoy, especially when that other has plenty more books to offer and all of their books are readily available. For me, Brandon Sanderson has become one of those writers in the last two years or so. I’ve known of him since he was handpicked to finish writing Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, but I only got around to giving one of his books a try until a couple years ago. Since then, I’ve been enjoying him work. I still have plenty of his books to read (he writes at superhuman speeds) which means I’ll have several more Sanderson reviews to write in the future.

Elantris is the most recent book by Sanderson that I’ve read. I enjoyed it, but not as much as I enjoyed Warbreaker and The Emperor’s Soul. The novel is Sanderson’s first published work, though not the first book he’s written. As his first published book it’s certainly something to be proud of because there are loads of really good things about it. One of those things is the prologue which instantly grabs the reader and sucks them into the world of Elantris. The setup is pretty simple. There once was a city of gods. It was a city filled with magic and limitless possibilities. A few decades ago that city died and all its gods became decrepit wretches, now living a cursed life. This event was called the Reod, the fall of the gods. Still, the city lives on in a way because the magic that chose people among the populace of the surrounding cities to become gods in the famed city of Elantris continues to work. Though now, the Shaod (the Transformation) is no longer a blessing, it’s a sentence to a miserable new life. 

Forward to the present day, we begin our story with prince Raoden who wakes up to discover he’s been cursed with the Shaod. He’s immediately brought to the city of Elantris where he will spend the remainder of his days to rot. Only he chooses to keep himself busy and he begins uncovering the secrets of the Reod.

It’s a great setup. The introduction of the Reod and several other unique fantasy ideas is what made Elantris an enjoyable read. It’s not the only good thing about the book, just one of my favourite parts of it. Sanderson spreads his ideas in three distinct categories of chapters, separated by the point of view character used in each chapter. The book has a pretty rigid structure for most of its length in which each of the three main characters has a chapter in their point of view and they appear in the same order: Raoden, Sarene, and Hrathen.

The Raoden chapters were immediately my favourite. His story is directly tied to that of the city of Elantris. His role in the book is to uncover the mystery of the Reod and because this is a book by Brandon Sanderson, that also means uncovering the magic called AonDor. He’s proactive and it’s easy to like him because of that. Each chapter that focused on him had at least one really interesting moment that helped to propel the plot, provided answers regarding the book’s many mysterious elements, and developed characters in engaging ways. Sometimes a chapter managed to do all these things in addition to adding some action scenes.

Sarene’s chapters were also quite good. I didn’t really like them initially because they were designed to have a slow build compared to the quick and surprising twists in Raoden’s early chapters. Over time, I began to really like her and she rivals Raoden as far as good characterization goes. Her portion of the story focused on the political, economic, and diplomatic portion of the book. She’s rather headstrong and focused. It’s a pleasure to see her navigate the wealthy and influential members of society in the capital city of Arelon. Sanderson has her fail a few times and it added some realism to Sarene’s other accomplishments and struggles. Unfortunately, her story doesn’t build to much as it’s entirely in service of other people, principally Raoden once the final third of the book kicks the plot into high gear. It’s one of the elements in the third act that I didn’t like.

The third point of view character is Hrathen, a religious leader of the most powerful nation on the continent of Opelon, where the nations of Arelon and the city of Elantris are located. His portion of the book focuses on the religious and the spiritual aspects of the story. His job is to convert all of Arelon to the religion of Derethi in only three months’ time. His chapters were a chore to read. I really disliked him as a character and his involvement in the plot seemed forced. He’s supposed to be one of the main antagonists but he really doesn’t show it. He’s supposed to be a very capable, independent, and powerful man but he’s constantly undermine but other people. This includes people who are presented to us by the narrator as being less intelligent and less resourceful than Hrathen. He’s a hollow threat and its made worst by the fact that Sanderson repeatedly tries to convince the reader that Hrathen really is threatening and powerful. He’s my least favourite character in any book by Sanderson, so far.

For most of the book’s duration, Sanderson sticks to the three chapter segments faithfully. The first small break comes in just past the halfway point. Near the end of the book, the structure is almost completely put aside. I really don’t know what the exact point of this structure was. It seemed to increase the compartmentalization of the book’s segments: Raoden (magic and mystery), Sarene (politics and economics), and Hrathen (religion and war). This increased my unhappiness of having to read any new Hrathen chapters. I was very annoyed that I had to read more about Hrathen before I could get back to Raoden and Sarene. I would even count the pages of Hrathen’s chapters to make sure they weren’t longer than those of the other characters. I wish there was a good reason for this split because it seems really arbitrary and it doesn’t serve any person that I can identify. My inability to figure out its reason for being simply adds to my irritation with Hrathen because it guaranteed I’d see him again every third chapter.

There are other things that don’t work for me besides Hrathen and Sarene’s diminished role in the book’s climactic chapters. Those two additional elements are the magic system of AonDor and the book’s final third. AonDor to put it simply is a form of rune magic. It really doesn’t work for me, even though I’m a fan of some rune magic (the rune magic from Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s Death Gate Cycle comes to mind). Usually there is a certain simplicity to rune magic but Sanderson being who he is goes all the way and tries to make it more complex. That’s where he loses me. To effectively use the power of AonDor, a user needs to first form the rune and then add details to it to specify what they want to do. When using the healing Aon (or rune), the user needs to add details to specify which part of the body needs healing and which type of healing is required based on the wound. This is pretty ridiculous considering some of the Aons are already very complex in their base form. It also causes me to suspend my disbelief with magic when I consider just how quickly Raoden traces his runes. It’s impossible to imagine him doing it successfully when such detail and precision is required. Those details really are a required when using the magic and Sanderson proves this by explaining what happens when a rune isn’t drawn correctly (nothing good, obviously).

Essentially, Sanderson spends hundreds of pages describing and unveiling a complex magic system that is difficult to master even though it’s based on simple ideas, that of illustrating lines into patterns in order to release and shape magic. It’s nice in theory, but his application of the magic late in the story makes it all pretty ludicrous. Raoden, who barely just unlocked some of the mysteries surrounding the rune magic, efficiently uses it to wield battle against enemies and do other incredible feats little effort. It just doesn’t work for me because I was led to believe it’s a difficult magic system but it’s paradoxically easy to use. I also can’t get over how much time it would take to correctly draw the runes while under the stress of a battle, particularly when fighting other magic users as is the case with Raoden.

I mentioned another problem with the end of the book. Sarene who is independent and sharp-witted gets reduced to a damsel in distress. Enough said about that. I’m still trying to forget it ever happened.

Elantris does succeed quite nicely in other areas, particularly in the world building. Sanderson takes several ideas worth developing and applies them to a multilayered and believable fantasy world. I really like the way that something like the Reod, the fall of the gods, could radically change the world in which the story takes place. It’s detailed and engaging. It’s also refreshing to see that everything is connected, from the social to the theological to the political. The connections are simplified compared to our real world standards but for a something that is fully realised in one person’s head this is top notch world building. The geography of the world is also important to a degree. Even with his first published novel Sanderson presents himself as a writer that truly thinks about the ideas present in his book.

What I like about Sanderson as an author is that he’s not satisfied with planting an interesting idea in his fiction, he develops it and he thinks about how it would impact the world beyond the obvious reaction you would have to the initial idea. Likewise he doesn’t provide you with info dump in the traditional sense. It’s there, certainly, but in digestible doses. He spreads it out throughout the story. He ties the info dump to the narrative and to the plot. Actually, he uses the how and why of the elements unique to his work (the Shaod, the Reod, Elantris, Aon ruins, etc.) as mystery elements to the plot. How things work and how things connect and influence characters, the setting, and the narrative are the driving force of Elantris. He’s very scientific in his approach to Elantris, even when he’s dealing with religion (which pops up often in this book). Inquisitive readers are likely to enjoy this book because even when the narrative builds slowly they will have enough interest invested in the world building and how it connects to the story, keeping the pages turning. Readers who want traditional fantasy characters or fluid and impressive prose will likely have trouble understanding why some readers really enjoyed this book and the level of detail and exposition presented in the world building of this novel.

The book starts really slowly. It’s a good thing the short prologue hooks you with an interesting premise because it takes Sanderson a couple hundred pages to really show the reader the implications of the events described in the prologue. He builds on it, piece by piece, and it eventually leads to some really interesting concepts and a well-executed delivery but you have to be patient.  . . and you will have to read about Hrathen a lot more than you will want to. Ultimately though, the build-up doesn’t pay off nearly as well as I had hoped. The ending is rushed almost as if giving the writing a sense of urgency will give the story additional weight and further elevate the importance of the climax. I was left disappointed that everything gets wrapped up so neatly and that the characters changed so radically from their portrayals earlier in the book. There was plenty of growth for the main characters overall, but their actions in the last few chapters feel as if they’re being done by different people than those I was reading about in the first two thirds of the novel.

I’ve only read three works by Sanderson, two novels and one novella. Already I can see a clear pattern for how his stories are constructed and Sanderson is definitively not the kind of author who works based on instinct. He’s a planner, he writes an outline. It’s not to say he doesn’t deviate from his outline and his notes, I’m sure he does, but for the most part he thinks and plans what he’ll be writing and how different ideas interact with other ideas. He builds the story starting with ideas rather than say, character or plot. This is not a criticism, just an observation. So far, I can expect a detailed magic system that is connected in some way with the social, religious, political or even geographical setting of the story. In fact, it’s likely that all of these elements will be connected by the time the story ends. My biggest complaints about this book are the Hrathen chapters, he’s insufferable and according to Sanderson’s annotations for Elantris on his website he’s rather fond of the character which just makes it worst for me. I dislike the use of rune magic as it’s portrayed in Elantris. The story’s build-up really is the high point for me. I particularly loved the scenes set in Elantris and I really liked Raoden and Sarene. I wish we would have gotten more romance between the two, especially considering they’re married. I also liked some of the minor characters quite a bit. This book had a lot of potential and I got a lot of enjoyment out of the build-up but ultimately the destination wasn’t nearly as interesting as the journey there and I wish this book had a significantly different ending. There have been mentions of a possible sequel to Elantris and hopefully that book, if it’s ever written and published, will answer some of the problems I had with it.

It’s a very good debut. Sanderson loves to recount the story of how he became a professional author. It’s well documented that Elantris is the sixth full novel he’s written and it became his first published work. It shows in the prose and in the way the ideas converge, but it’s still a good book. I would definitively recommend it to readers of the fantasy genre who don’t want to read yet another book with knights, dragons, or a story set in a medieval setting. It’s a rewarding book in part because of how refreshing it’s world-building and the characters are. Oddly enough, its magic system is unimpressive and that’s quite odd considering Sanderson’s affinity for developing good magic systems. 

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