Elantris is the first book I read by Brandon Sanderson, an author I kept hearing about from a lot of different people.
A year ago, I wouldn’t have said I was a fantasy fan – in fact, I kind of scorned fantasy in favor of science fiction. Now, I just think I wasn’t reading the right books. For example, I tried to gut my way through the Lightbringer series (Brent Weeks) almost two years ago on a friend’s recommendation. I thought the magic system was cool, but I couldn’t get into the plot and wasn’t a fan of the main character. I also thought the writing was sort of shit. But, last year, my coworker kept talking about Patrick Rothfuss and his book The Name of the Wind. I thought it sounded all right, but I wasn’t that interested. My manager offered to lend me her copy, though, and I couldn’t think of a nice way to say no. I borrowed the book and read it and it was fucking awesome. I quickly read The Wise Man’s Fear, the sequel. And now I’m waiting in anticipation for the third book to come out. Another coworker raved about Sanderson. Then, my dad started talking about how he was reading Sanderson’s Mistborn series. I decided to read Elantris, mostly because it wasn’t part of a series.
I liked Elantris a lot. It has a really original, well-developed plot and interesting, complex characters. One of the main characters is a woman – never a given for fantasy/sci fi! Sarene is a strong, integral character for most of the book. She’s the princess of Teod, and is set to marry Raoden, the prince of Arelon. When Sarene arrives in Arelon, she finds out that Raoden is dead. He’s really not – he’s just become an Elantrian – but that’s akin to being dead in Arelon. Elantrians are immortal beings who live in the city of Elantris. This city used to be a shining, beautiful city, and the Elantrians used to be revered, immortal healers. But after a mysterious event called the Shaod, Elantrians don’t have the healing powers they used to have and Elantris is now a shitthole for people who can’t die. Becoming a Elantrian (it happens randomly) is now basically a death sentence. Serene spends most of the book thinking Raoden is actually dead and figuring out how to reform Arelon’s political system and save it from being taken over by Fjordell. When she’s doing this, she’s great and compelling and dynamic. However, Sarene becomes more of a standard female love interest when she realizes Raoden is still alive. She becomes a way for Raoden to showcase his strengths. He saves her life and fulfills her need to be loved. She doesn’t really fulfill a corresponding need of his – she’s just a nice-to-have and by marrying her, Raoden cements his comeback from to the land of the living.
Here’s two examples of Sarene as a boring, traditional love interest:
- Serene loses all of her hair when Hrathen gives her a poison that temporarily makes her an Elantrian. Somehow, this is a very big deal for Sarene, who throughout the book is decidedly not very feminine or about appearances. But, when she comes back from Elantris, she wears a fucking blond wig. Raoden, being the gentleman that he is, works some magic and restores her hair to her. Serene’s response: “‘Thank you,’ she whispered, pulling him close. ‘You have no idea what that means’” (436). Fuck that. Why is this scene necessary? It’s not like the hair has been a key plot point or anything. It seems to me that this scene only exists to make Sarene a desirable love interest with cute, feminine insecurities that Raoden can swoop down and make all better.
- At the end of the book, Raoden and Sarene get married. After the wedding, Raoden asks her if she the wedding met her expectations, since she’d “been anticipating this moment for your entire life” (612). Serene replies that “there is one thing I have looked forward to even more than my wedding” (612). Yep, yep, it’s the wedding night. This stuff is really, really cringey. It’s even cringier for the fact that there’s like very little romance at all in the book – this cheesy wedding night stuff just feels forced and grafted on. And I think it really belittles Sarene’s character – throughout the book, she’s been completely reforming Arelon’s political and economic systems and basically committing treason to do so. Yet… all of this doesn’t matter when Raoden shows up. When that happens, she magically transforms into a really stereotypical love interest whose hopes and dreams are completely fulfilled by the wedding.
Raoden is the perfect fantasy hero. He has some flaws, but they don’t even really count as flaws – they’re the really annoying flaws that are actually just positive characteristics (headstrong, stubborn, optimistic, etc). I thought Sarene was a great character and I don’t like how she ended up just playing into his strengths at the end and becoming a weak, traditionally feminine love interest. Elantris would have been a better book if this romance dimension wasn’t a part of it.