Before his bestselling Mistborn and Stormlight Archive series, Brandon Sanderson wrote a standalone novel called Elantris. Set ten years after the fall of the magical city of Elantris, it tells the stories of three main characters: Raoden, a Crown Prince exiled to the ruins of the fallen city; Sarene, a foreign princess who quickly becomes embroiled in the nation’s political intrigues; and Hrathen, a priest who believes that saving the country from an invasion depends upon the conversion of its people.
As with many fantasy novels, the magic system is a central component of the story, and Sanderson has done an excellent job of creating an internally consistent one. All of the glyphs used for magic are based on a single, simple design—two curved lines and a dot—which is repeated, reoriented, or built upon to create a wide array of different patterns. These glyphs are also ideograms that represent words (similar to Japanese kanji); characters typically have one in their names. This well-thought-out magic system and its integration into the culture goes a long way towards making the setting feel real.
The book also gives us interesting, complex characters. The one I liked best, Hrathen, is the central antagonist of the plot. Without giving too much away, I will say that he becomes a more complex character as the story progresses, which makes the back-and-forth plotting between himself and Sarene very engaging.
I did have two quibbles with the book; as both of them involve significant plot spoilers, I’ll detail them below—don’t read past this paragraph if you haven’t read Elantris. Despite these, this is an excellent introduction to Sanderson’s work. I was happy to learn that two short stories set in the same universe appear in Sanderson’s short story collection Arcanum Unbound, and I hope that we’ll eventually get a sequel novel.
Partway through the novel, we learn that King Iadon has been engaging in human sacrifice. While he’s portrayed as a very mercenary and callous person, I didn’t get the impression that he would stoop to cold-blooded murder. That aspect of his character didn’t feel believable to me.
Throughout the book, there are occasional hints that Sarene’s father, King Eventeo, doesn’t get along at all with his brother Kiin. The reason for this animosity is eventually revealed as being rooted in Eventeo having stolen the throne of his country from Kiin. This seems inconsistent with the prior characterization of Eventeo as a good-hearted, kind, upstanding man who deeply cares about both his family and his nation. We never learn what Eventeo’s motivation for the usurpation was. Is he not as good a man as the story led us to believe? Is he a reformed miscreant who can’t now give up the throne for fear of causing chaos in his country (and perhaps provoking an invasion from the rival nation that Hrathen serves)? Did he genuinely believe that Kiin would be a poor ruler? I can’t help wondering if Sanderson initially included this information in his drafts of the novel but was required to cut it by his editor—“forgetting” to include a motivation for such a pivotal act doesn’t seem like the sort of mistake he’d make, based on the overall excellence of his writing.