Top Ten: Elantris

Title: Elantris

Author: Brandon Sanderson

Nutshell: Sarene arrives for her wedding in the country across the ocean from her home to find that she is now, officially, a widow. Her marriage treaty stipulates that if either member dies before the marriage, they are held to have been married, to preserve the treaty. So, Sarene attempts to live in this new country, as an unwed widow. She learns to navigate the mercurial and restrictive court, meddles in politics, and does what she can to make this new home a better place. There’s plenty for her to do. All the royalty are holding secrets, and some of them are her concern.

Raoden, Sarene’s betrothed, woke on the day of his wedding a dead man. He was possessed in the night by the Shaod, a transformation that has made his body blotchy and hairless. He is thrown into the City of Elantris and left to his misery. Once, the Shaod was a glorious thing, and those chosen by it were escorted into Elantris with revelry. Once, the Shaod transformed people into glowing marvels, people able to harness magic. Once, the Elantrians ruled the land with benevolence. But no longer. Now Raoden is locked in the city with packs of starving, miserable, feral people, and he too must try to live in his new surroundings.

If that was not enough, Hrathen, a high-ranking priest from a bloodthirsty religion, has just arrived in the city, and he has thirty days to get everyone to convert. Or his fellow priests will invade and slaughter everyone.

Read-alikes: I’m afraid I have nothing for you, other than more Sanderson titles.

Ramblings:

It is so difficult to pick just one Brandon Sanderson book to review. But Elantris is his first, it is a solo novel, and it is one of the shortest of the standalones.

Sanderson is incredible. His books are funny, witty, clever, complex, understandable, interesting, realistic without being horrible, and thoroughly entertaining. One of the biggest hallmarks of his writing is the way nothing that happens in his books is ever the obvious choice. Not even the obvious second.

If two people are destined to be together, for example, they won’t simply be reluctant until they’re passionate. (And the poor reader doesn’t have to shout “JUST KISS!” Every third scene.) Sarene and Raoden are eager at first, and then one thinks the other is dead. When they do finally meet, Sarene doesn’t know who Raoden is. Rather than sparks flying immediately, she is intrigued until Raoden does something that she views as a betrayal. Then they encounter each other again while Raoden is in disguise, and she treats him as a suspicious mercenary. Meanwhile, the reader is well aware of why he is doing what he is doing and how honorable and important it is, giving a very delicious tension to the relationship.

Sanderson’s tension is artful. Elantris is one of his more lighthearted books. He lets the reader worry about things going wrong, but brings small successes often enough that the reader is willing to trust for a good ending. Also, there is so much that is beautiful about this book, even in the midst of horrible, collapsing Elantris, that only a sadist would let the outcome be tragic.

It’s the importance of beauty that makes this book one of my favorites. Raoden knows it. He looks around at slimy, crumbling, miserable Elantris and decides to make it beautiful He reminds his people that beauty is part of what makes life. (Life as opposed to existence.) And they remember that making beauty is beautiful as well.

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