I've always considered myself a visual person. Since I was a kid, I leaned towards games, movies, animation, you get the gist. Fantasy, in particular, was my genre of choice. It provided me shelter when I needed the most.
Oddly enough, despite being an (aspiring) writer, I never took much pleasure from reading. It felt like a chore. While I could lose myself for hours in video games, I couldn't immerse myself in a book even for one hour straight. All that changed when I started analyzing prose in order to improve my own writing.
Enter Elantris - the book who ignited my passion for reading.
When I heard that an author named Brandon Sanderson would write the final books of the Wheel of Time series - due to the unfortunate passing of Robert Jordan - I was intrigued. Even someone like me, who wasn't much of a reader, understood the impact that WoT had and still has in the fantasy world. But who was this man who they thought was a worthy successor, for lack of a better word, to Jordan's legacy?
Sanderson is now famous for being a prolific writer, authoring more than 20 books, most notably his Mistborn series and The Stormlight Archives series. Most of his books take place in the same universe called the Cosmere. His desire to create an epic length series without the need to buy all his books led him to call his work a "hidden epic". And it all started with Elantris.
Unlike most fantasy beginnings, we don't have a farm boy living his quiet life in a sleepy village, only to embark on a journey after discovering his true heritage (I know, this set-up is rarely played straight anymore). The protagonist, Prince Raoden of Arelon, is taken by the Shaod, a mysterious disease where your whole body acts as if you already died, frozen in time. That means any injury stays with you, along with the pain (yes, even if you break your neck. Ouch.)
The prince is promptly taken to Elantris - once a city of physical Gods - now, a deposit of madmen trying to survive by any means necessary. Those same Gods, who lost their powers, are now seen as devils. Raoden must learn to survive this harsh environment with nothing but his wits.
We are then introduced to a new POV character: Princess Sarene of Teod, who was supposed to marry the prince before he "died". This political marriage was necessary to unite both Arelon and Teod against a common enemy: the empire of Fjorden. And that's from where our third POV character, Hrathen, hails from. The plot thickens when he arrives with the mission of converting the entire nation - a task he was given three months - or else risk a complete slaughter of the kingdom.
The story interweaves these three POVs, alternating between them at each new chapter. While Raoden's struggle to survive in Elantris and building a new society from the ground up is compelling enough, I'd say the strength of the narrative lies in Sarene's political struggle against Hrathen for the control of Arelon.
Of the three POV characters, Hrathen is the most interesting one by far. Despite being a priest (or a Gyorn, as his religion calls it), his faith is solely based on logic. His counterpart, Dilaf, is a man of passion, whose irrational hatred for Elantrians knows no boundaries. This clash between logic and emotion is explored not only in terms of characters, but also in terms of society.
In Elantris, it's survival of the fittest. Raoden was the one who slowly introduced civilization back. At many points in the story, the struggle between these two forces is made apparent: Sarene was to be married not because of love, but because it was the logical thing to do (though she does come to love Raoden); Prince Raoden got many followers because he was a practical, if a bit optimistic, man; Hrathen often succeeded in his ploys due to his cunning mind.
The first half of the book is a slow burn. When all pieces fall into place, though, it moves steadily toward the end, never letting you go. Here, the "all is lost" moment seen in most stories really feels like all is lost. So much that some narrative choices made near the end to get the characters out of their predicament were somewhat questionable.
Yes, the ending could've been stronger, and many people consider Elantris to be Sanderson's weakest book, but I still think it's a fine story on its own. It's refreshing to see a fantasy book with only one entry, standing on its own amidst a sea of sequels that permeates the genre. While the characters are a bit flat and the pacing, uneven, there is still a lot to like here. And if I liked this one so much, I can't wait to get into his more famous novels.