Review of Brandon Sanderson’s Elantris

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Brandon Sanderson’s Elantris is a novel about what happens when utopia fails. In the advanced city of Elantris no one goes hungry, no one is dominated by political or economic pressures, and where the Elantrians themselves live like gods. But previous to the story, Elantris mysteriously falls into ruin. As its power fades, the vacuum created by its absence draws in competing interests of power. It is in this conflict of leadership that Elantris asks its most pressing and significant questions: what is the most virtuous and soundest foundation of leadership? What roles should wealth and religion play in politics? What sort of hierarchy, if any, is required for society to function?

Elantris tackles these questions mainly through its brilliant characters. Raoden, fallen prince of Arelon, is heroic and thoughtful despite chronic physical pain; Sarene, an impetuous natural politician, outmaneuvers nearly everyone like some well-intentioned Machiavellian; Hrathen, a high priest of the rigidly hierarchical and brutal Derethi religion, seeks to convert so he doesn’t have to conquer. The narrative moves between the perspectives of these three characters and we see their motivations, hopes, and doubts as they navigate the complex politics (and mystical oddities) of the world. The supporting cast is no less compelling, most if not all of them drawn with warmth, agency, and vulnerability thanks to Sanderson’s overall positive anthropology. Terrible things happen in Elantris, but the people themselves maintain their humanity, their hopes, and a hobbit-ish companionship with one another that keeps the reader coming back to this fantasy classic.

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