Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Readings — Elantris

by Brandon Sanderson

According to the cover of this book, Orson Scott Card has called it “the finest novel of fantasy to be written in many years.” I really don’t understand why. It’s not a terrible book. It does what it does, tell a fantasy adventure story, and does it reasonably well. But its prose is gravely ordinary, the political world it creates is perplexing, subplots are left hanging (no future books seem to be planned), and characters are flat and unsurprising. It’s an efficient book, and people who like this sort of thing will like it, but I’d have no problem thinking of any number of finer fantasy novels in recent years.

The basic story has to do with the eponymous city of Elantris, once the centre of a powerful kingdom, struck down ten years ago by some kind of curse or blight. Its glory is dead and decayed, a parody of what it was, and its citizens, once elf-like beings of great magical power, are now zombies who cannot be killed and feel pain eternally until their hurts cause them to sink into catatonia. These Elantrians are not necessarily those born in the city; in fact, humans who live in the surrounding lands are unpredictably ‘elevated’ to become Elantrians. That was great when being an Elantrian meant becoming a powerful wizard; not great when it means becoming a cursed zombie. So the new Elantrians are forced into exile in the ruined city, where they’re left to rot with no food or fresh water. Oh, and meanwhile, an evil theocratic empire is planning to add the kingdom formerly ruled by Elantris to its domains.

The story unfolds through the points-of-view of three characters. Raoden is a prince of Arelon, the land Elantris once ruled; as the book begins, he’s just become an Elantrian, and so is exiled to the zombie city, where he sets to work building a community and trying to find a way to reverse the damage done to Elantris. Hrathen is a priest of the theocratic empire, trying to convert Arelon before his masters sweep in to invade; the idea seems to be that he starts off as a villain, but circumstances conspire so that he’s working with the good guys by the end of the book. Sarene is Raoden’s fiancé, a princess of a neighbouring country who comes to Arelon to marry Raoden only to find him gone (his father’s hidden his true fate, so everybody believes him dead.).

I found Raoden a bit bland on the page for someone as charismatic as he’s supposed to be; and he builds his new society with surprising ease. Moreover, he has a habit of not telling certain other characters, notably Sarene, certain vital bits of information — such as his true identity — until it’s particularly dramatic. Hrathen’s a bit of a muddle; the early chapters which establish him don’t really set him up as an effective character, as he stumbles around in a not-particularly-intimidating fashion and is generally a fanatical priest out of central casting. Then he undergoes an ordeal, and is retroactively revealed to have an interesting backstory. Sarene, meanwhile, suffers from a galloping case of spunkyprincessitis. Symptoms include being an intelligent liberated (but not sexually liberated) princess in a patriarchal and patrilineal society who is unmarried due to her independent spirit; nevertheless having other characters, including the priest of the male-dominated religion, fall immediately in love with her or otherwise treat her with constant affection and deference; having a romantic interest (Raoden) who is the nicest and most intelligent male character in the book but who she nevertheless (in a case of mistaken identity) at one point physically fights and defeats; being faced with a stupid king/father figure who at first is intimidating but who she immediately and comprehensively gets the better of when a confrontation occurs; and, most crucially, meeting no real opposition and living in a world which generally unfolds in such a way that things go easy on her. For example, easily besting a high-ranking priest of a religion not her own in a public theological dispute over doctrine — because he wasn’t expecting her questions, you see.

So it may be fairly said that I had some problems with the book. On the flip side, the best thing about the book, its readability, is not something that I can easily illustrate. I can’t even really use a quotation to show it; the quality I’m talking about is not something that you can see in a short passage, it’s something that becomes apparent as you read the book, and turn pages, and turn pages, and it’s easier to keep reading than to look away, and the pages flip by and you realise the thing’s moving you along faster and faster. This is nothing to be sneezed at, this quality. It’s an aspect to prose that I rarely see mentioned, and never quantified. It’s got something to do with rhythm and diction, though the drawback may be excessive simplicity. At its extreme, it makes the Harry Potter books bestsellers. Elantris isn’t quite at that level, but this is the sort of thing we’re talking about: a smoothly-written pop fantasy. It does what it does, and there you go.

I just think there’ve been better books written in recent years.

1 comment:

Stu Crump said...

I for one should like to posit, "The Very Hungry Caterpillar", as recommended by my daughter, as a better book. That is, if the level of enthusiasm she turns the pages with and says "Daddy, more!" is anything to go by.

She is convinced that I am lying when I say that the plums in the book are not blueberries.