Recommended for: Readers interested in worldbuilding that focuses on religion
I first read Elantris soon after it came out, when Sanderson was still unknown and unremarked. In my library, it didn't even make the "new books" shelf and was immediately relegated to the fantasy section. When I picked it up, the worldbuilding enchanted me and the religious themes resonated with me for years. They say to never meet your idols, but there should be a corollary: never reread a book that you passionately loved when you were younger. All too often, a little of the shine rubs off on reread.
The story takes place in a world of composed of small city-states that are being inexorably absorbed by the militaristic and imperialistic religion of Shu-Direth. Only two kingdoms remain unconquered: Arelon and Teod. Serene, princess of Teod, has been promised in a political marriage to a Raoden, prince of Arelon. The capital of Arelon sits within eyesight of Elantris, the city of its dead and dying gods. Elantris used to be the home of a shining, beneficent people who used their magic to heal, teach, and give. Ten years ago, these gods mysteriously fell from grace and all of Arelon was thrown into chaos. After the ensuing civil war, the merchant class took over, but their hold over the kingdom is as tenuous as Arelon's resistance to Shu-Direth. The story is told from the perspectives of Raoden, Serene, and Hrathen. The story begins when Raoden awakes to discover that he has been transformed into an Elantrian. Serene is confronted by the disappearance of her spouse-to-be and must navigate the Arelon politics. Hrathen, a high-ranking Direthi priest, has been sent to convert Arelon before it is overwhelmed by Shu-Direth armies.
After my difficulties with getting into The Way of Kings and reading Carol's biting and spot-on review, I had an unholy temptation to reread and re-evaluate Elantris, and I made the further mistake of audioing it. I now vaguely recollect breezing through all the tedious bits on my first read (i.e., anything not from Hrathen's viewpoint), but this time, I discovered that it's awfully hard to skim in an audiobook. Elantris was my first Sanderson book, so all of his twists on standard epic fantasy felt fresh and creative. Unfortunately, he uses the same twists in practically every subsequent book, so the novelty has worn off. His societies always have sharply defined gender lines which are usually highlighted by the perspective of an "emancipated" female ingénue protag (call her the FIP). FIP is strong-minded, but despite Sanderson's assertions, she is generally "feminine" except in a few repeatedly angsted-over traits. There are always several parties and balls. FIP shows a disturbing amount of enthusiasm for said ball and frets about the dresses she'll wear. Sanderson often pays quite quotable lip service to feminism, e.g. "They say they give their women freedom, but there's still the impression that the freedom was theirs to give in the first place." However, character actions tell a different tale. By creating sexist societies, Sanderson can gain brownie points over "feminist" struggles such as women speaking in public, yet neatly avoids actually having to treat his female characters as equals. Even if "the women" do something well, it's considered an "unexpected source" and they are guaranteed to lose their nerves at the crucial moment so that the big strong (male) hero can save the day.
Speaking of heroes, there's always a young, charismatic, idealistic male protagonist (CIMP), and be he Calladan, Eloden, Raodan,
Brandon, etc., he typically has a name whose last syllable is pronounced "dehn," an incurable enthusiasm, and an argument/attraction relationship with FIP. This handsome, uncertain CIMP is always naively interested in politics and typically butts heads with an antagonistic, unloving, politically-powerful father. CIMP ends up in a situation where everyone around him is stultified by despair. Fortunately, he puts all that charisma and idealism and natural bent for leadership into effect, and no matter how naive his methods of rallying the troops actually are, they are magically successful. CIMP always has a large, solid, comic-relief-complaining right-hand-man/friend (RHM). RHM is usually easy-going, cynical, black (skintone for Sanderson defaults to white), and foreign, with about 10 "foreign" expressions that he shoehorns into every conversation. CIMP, aided by RHM, ends up captaining the hearts and minds of a loyal band which contains the same set of stock characters. FIP and/or CIMP implement ridiculously naive political methods ("Let the people own the land!" "Make them feel important!" "Project confidence!" "Dress in white!" "Institute fireside chat time!" "Cook communal soup!") and, by collusion of the author, they will work. At least one character will have a crisis of (religious) faith. Cultures are often uncomfortably similar to our own. (For example, in Elantris, we have the polite, wise, chopstick-using, meditating Jindoese who control the spice route and practice martial arts.) Granted, each Sanderson book has a very unique and intriguing magic system, but it's gotten to the point where I am actually unable distinguish the characters between books. Sigh.
Although I may have lost my uncritical adoration, I still like this book. The premise is a world in which the gods have died, the entire economic and political systems have fallen apart, and a theocratic and imperialistic religion is encroaching on the borders; what's not to like? Even the concept of living demigods intrigued me; Sanderson himself is a Mormon (LDS), and I think the doctrine of eternal progression makes the idea more natural. With my dour-all-have-sinned Protestant upbringing, I strongly sympathised with the Direthi discomfort. The exploration of how a society can be rebuilt from anarchy reminds me of China Mieville's Embassytown. Although Sanderson went overboard with invention of strange names, he also throws in a staggering number of creative ideas, and for all my griping about Raoden and Serene, I don't actually dislike them. I tend to want to punch Raoden in the face every time someone calls him "my lord" or he assumes the effrontery that goes with the honorific, but I also found myself empathising with him and being swept up in events.
The character of Hrathen still holds my attention. In my first read, I think I ignored Raoden's rah-rah-hero storyline and Serene's just-want-to-be-loved angsting, and I still believe that Hrathen and his religious struggles are the heart of the book.Proof: Hrathen gets the last sentence of the story.] Hrathen is a man of reason who has turned to religion as a logical career. He repeatedly convinces himself that he is content with his life and desperately tries to ignore the emptiness of his work: "I have found purpose...before, I lived, but I didn't know why. I have direction now. It gives glory to all that I do...I am important." He comes to Arelon to save the people, but also to relieve himself from the guilt of his past failures. When he is confronted with a passionate subordinate, Hrathen is unable to stifle his doubts about his own faith. Hrathen struggles with his own lack of emotional investment and tries desperately to force himself to feel Dilaf's rapture and fury: "What of the faith...of the almost unthinking passion he had once felt? He could hardly remember it." I was fascinated by the conflict of the faiths of logic and passion. Although the ending, with Dilaf becoming a maniacal-evil-laughing-style super-villain, is something of a cop-out, the initial conflict is still interesting.] Although Hrathen is an antagonist, he is a very human one, haunted by his past deeds even as he tries to rationalize them into righteous acts. He is beset by pride, petty jealousy, and ambition, yet ruled by an appreciation of cleverness and economy and a love of the game. I see Hrathen as a man of compassion who has stifled his own humanity in an attempt to choke off his doubts. Hrathen's struggle to live up to the ideals of his religion resonates with me. No matter how many times he tries to clap his hands and believe, no matter how hard he tries, no matter how guilty he feels, he cannot force himself to have faith. The moment in which Hrathen desperately begins to pray to the void for the very faith he lacks is incredibly powerful: 'What did Hrathen have? He wasn't certain any more.'.]
One of the aspects I loved most is that, in a book whose central theme is religion, the characters and message are surprisingly agnostic. Serene, her father, and most of their allies pay lip service, but seem to see the struggle over religion as a purely political one; although she is willing to sacrifice the people of her country to her cause, it seems to be out of hatred for Fjordels rather than faith. Raoden, too, seems to have faith in humanity, but not much time for God. Even more curiously, in the end, Sanderson makes no assertions about the truth of any of the systems he creates. Although the story does indeed denounce the militaristic Shu-Direth, it does not embrace Shu-Kesig. The fall and resurgence of Elantris has a purely scientific--or at least physical--explanation, and the power of its gods are purely mechanistic, not religious. We are left with a world in which the presence and nature of God is as unclear as it is in our own. It was a comfort for me when I went through my own struggles of faith, yet is uncondemning as I approach it now as an agnostic.]
No matter the flaws, Sanderson is a darned sight better than most of the epic fantasy writers out there. He creates fascinating magical systems and well-fleshed-out worlds, with the added bonus that they are relatively free from R-rated scenes. However, if you're planning to try a Sanderson, this most definitely has the feel of a first novel, with each "insight" and emotion explicitly spelled out and a so many subplots crammed together that the pace is somewhat unsteady. Sanderson's writing does get subtler and tighter with added experience, so I'd suggest giving Mistborn a try instead. Elantris still stands out for me as Sanderson's first book and as the creation of his most three-dimensional and empathetic character. All the same, remind me in five years or so to dump my Dresden Files and purge myself of Potter books. That way, at least I can keep those worlds magical forever.