Welcome to my Cosmere Christmas series! Over the Christmas period, I’m going to be reviewing every published book in Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere, a fictional universe in which several – but not all – of his series’ are set. Each book can be read alone, without understand of the Cosmere or other books, but there are little nuggets hidden away for those who’ve read them all. Sanderson himself recommends starting with his Misborn trilogy, but I’ve chosen to start with his first published book – and the first book I ever read in the Cosmere, Elantris. I hope you enjoy the review series, and for those of you who haven’t read these books yet, they’re some of the finest examples of epic fantasy I’ve ever read! If you’d like some background information on the Cosmere, I have an introductory post here.
‘Elantris’ is a brilliant fantasy standalone packed full of intriguing, engaging characters with the fantastic worldbuilding Sanderson has become well known for. As his first published novel, it’s not his strongest work – but it’s a spectacular story with an incredibly imaginative premise.
The city of Elantris was once a place of miracles, a place full of magic where the Elantrians lived as gods. The old religions were forgotten as people worshipped the marvels they saw every day – but no longer. Now Elantris lies in ruins, and the Shaod – the process by which ordinary people become Elantrians – is a curse. Arelon, the neighbouring city, has lived in the shadow of this curse for ten years, and whilst at first glance it seems prosperous, many people still live in fear. The safety of Arelon lies with a betrothal between Prince Raoden, heir to the Arelon throne, and Sarene, a princess from neighbouring Teod – but when Raoden becomes a victim of the Shaod, a series of events is set in motion that could be the downfall of Arelon and all who reside within in.
Like most epic fantasy stories, Elantris follows multiple POV characters – Raoden, declared legally deceased and thrown into Elantris to die; Sarene, the princess determined to find out what everyone’s hiding; and Hrathen, a Derethi Gyorn (similar to a Priest) sent to convert Arelon to the Derethi religion of Shu-Dereth. Each character is well fleshed-out and likeable – Raoden for his kind heart, Sarene for her tenacity, and Hrathen for his questioning and clear humanity. Sarene especially is regularly hilarious, constantly outwitting everyone yet hiding her brains from her stepfather lest he become suspicious of her true intentions.
Sanderson is fond of flipping fantasy tropes on their head. In Elantris, he takes the trope of discovering magic and inverts it – where magic once existed, now it is gone, and the world must either survive without it or rediscover it. His explorations of the implications – especially around public perception – are fascinating and incredibly insightful. Memories are both very long and very short. The magic system is also excellent – all magics in the Cosmere follow very clear rules, which makes them both easy to understand and avoids the familiar pitfall of making any one power too overwhelming.
The other thing which sets Elantris apart from many compatriots in the genre is the strong focus on religion. Religion remains one of the most powerful forces to both unite and divide in the modern world, yet many fantasy authors avoid religion playing a prominent part in their stories. The clashes between the two religious sects of Shu-Korath and Shu-Dereth are reminiscent of squabbles between Protestantism and Catholicism, and the way Hrathen twists the truth to fit his purposes and underline his religious messages is – for a book originally published in 2005 – both very insightful of the current ‘post-truth’ media age we live in, and accurate to how religious leaders throughout the ages have sought to pit their religions against each other.
Overall, Elantris is an exceptional debut novel and a strong addition to the epic fantasy genre. Recommended for fans of intricate worldbuilding, excellent characterisation, and clearly delineated magic systems of limited rather than infinite power.
First published in the US 1st May 2005
UK publication August 11th 2011