Elantris: The Cursed City

Elantris is the second book I’ve read by Brandon Sanderson (third one I’ve tried–the main character and the writing in Steelheart got on my nerves). Although I don’t find it quite as awesome as The Emperor’s Soul, this was a very good, if long, read. Sanderson is a great world builder and clearly a deep thinker as well.

In the land of Arelon there is a city called Elantris, a dead and crumbling city that was cursed ten years ago. Before that, Elantris was powerful, gorgeous, and full of magic, as were it’s citizens, the Elantrians, who were much like superheroes or gods on the earth, using special ruins or Aons to access the Dor, or the “Force” of the universe and using that power to do great things. One day, suddenly, the magic stopped working, the Elantrian’s silver skin and white hair disappeared and they found their appearance changed to that of diseased corpses instead. For the neighboring city of Kae, Elantris is now a place condemned. Whereas before, any person taken by the power and made into an Elantrian lived in splendor, now those taken by the same power are thrown into the same place to rot and likely die.

Elantris follows three main characters: Prince Raoden, who is heir to the Arelon throne, wakes up one day to find he is a cursed Elantrian. He is thrown into the city which dwarfs his own, to rot and to starve. His family and nations considers him as dead. Princess Sarene is a princess from the nearby country across the water, Toed, and arrives in Arelon to marry Prince Raoden, but finds that he is now dead and that per Arelon law she cannot marry another and will just remain a widowed court lady. Hrathen is a priest of the country of Fjordell. He has come to convert Arelon to his religion, Shu Dereth, and convert him he must, or they will all die as Fjordell plans to attack and invade them for their unbelief.

This book, like many high fantasy books, is long and so takes awhile to get going. But much world building needs to be done for the reader and Sanderson is great at that. We get to follow Raoden as he finds a new life in Elantris and even works for the good of his country despite his circumstances. We follow Sarene in her disappointment and then watch her rally as she forays into political intrigue in the Kae court. We see Hrathen confident, then continually thwarted in his plan to convert the city of Kae and Arelon. We learn more and more about what Elantris was before and what it is now.

The biggest theme that stood out to me in the story was the power of positive thinking. Raoden takes grime and decay and in his own way makes it beautiful and useable. Sarene does the same, making the best of her circumstances. Although there isn’t a lot of their romance in the book, it is neat to see how they work together for the good of their country as a couple, even if neither really know they are still a couple. They two are indeed kindred spirits and how in tune their minds and objectives are despite the distance is romantic. Even more exciting is when Raoden realizes who she is, but Sarene doesn’t know who he is. What fun.

The parts with Hrathen I found interesting, but also tedious. There are a lot of religious themes going on, but it is never clear what his religion, Shu Dereth, really teaches. The biggest message is basically convert or die. For the opposite religion, Shu Korath, there is a general feeling of kindness, but few specifics. Obviously the author left the religions purposefully vague, which on one level I found irritating, but on another level worked: By the end of the book, Hrathan has a full on questioning of his faith in Shu Dereth, and that is essentially the point of his character. He is bent on converting those to a religion in which he doesn’t really believe. However, he keeps faith in the god both religions share.

Sorry, that was a spoiler, but it’s pretty easy from the beginning of the story to see where his character arc is going. His battle with Sarene is amusing as she continually thwarts his efforts to convert the masses. She and her country of Toed are followers of the kinder religion, Shu Korath.

The religious aspects were fascinating to me because all the characters clearly had some matter of faith, but it was also as if they didn’t fully understand or know what they were believing in. Here, the vagueness didn’t quite work for me, for even believing children will know specifics. It just wasn’t flattering to any of the characters. Yet, can we say in the real world, those of us religious believers, that we really and truly understand specifically what we believe in? For me, yes and no. It depends how far I have pulled away from God at any given moment.

The magic of the world is similar to the stamps in The Emperor’s Soul and makes sense and both worlds are in the same universe. I was very much rooting for Raoden to figure out what went wrong in Elantris, why the magic suddenly stopped working. And although he does figure it out, it’s almost by mere chance that it works, and after I wondered just how he would manage to keep the magic permanent in the future. The Aons are beautiful things, both artistic and powerful, and the entire world of the story is built around them. Good world building, indeed.

Elantris is great on many levels, but Sanderson really found his stride here especially with family and friend relationships. They are all warm, real people one could imagine meeting in real life, with strengths and flaws all on display throughout the story. Maybe it’s just me being a woman, as we tend to be more interested in relationships, but I was so glad there was very little battle time and that I as a reader just got to, well, “live” in the world of Arelon. There is quite a lot of politics in the book, so if one isn’t interested in that, that or the religion, that could be a turn off. Somehow Sanderson manages to write about the most controversial topics in the real world, but in this story they are things to be pursued and studied, rather than avoided in conversation at all costs. Again, the vagueness helped in this, allowing him largely to avoid offence to the readers, while getting them interested in the story.

This was a great, if long, read and enjoyed almost all of it. It is definitely a book I’d like to read again someday and of course has made me more interested in Sanderson’s other books set in the same universe. The magic he uses in his books is very specific, a science, almost. Looking forward to reading more of him in the future.

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