Having read the Mistborn books, Alloy of Law, Warbreaker and Way of Kings, I’d been kind of avoiding Sanderson’s first novel. People had told me it wasn’t as good as his others, and since I really really enjoyed his others, I didn’t really want to spoil that enjoyment by reading something less good of his. But I saw it in Waterstone’s the other day and I couldn’t resist. On the logic of “it’s still Sanderson; it can’t be that bad” I figured I’d give it a go. Good call, as it turns out.
It is, I have to agree, not his best. But the difference between Elantris and the rest is not actually that massive, and it’s mostly to be found in the details, rather than in the writing or plot or characters. The thing for me which stood out as different from his other work I’ve read was the fact that, in Elantris, the naming of things, people, places… all of it… is just a bit naff. I have a personal niggle when it comes to naming. Some really good authors can be really bad at it, and some not spectacular ones can be amazing at it (the Harry Potter books are a really good example of the latter). No matter how much I like and appreciate a good book on its proper merits, if the naming is awkward or weird or just naff, it really puts me off. Now, the naming in Elantris isn’t wholly shoddy, and the problems are in part down to something sensible and plotty (the written language of a previous culture consists of signs that are VCV, VVC or CVV, and the names of people and most other things in the book all contain one of these signs), but it is still a bit awkward. Most importantly, when you just start the book, there are several new things introduced quite quickly with very similar names. They just get dropped onto you without explanation much, and I had a bit of difficulty separating the Reod from the Teod and the Seons for a while. It is a surmountable irritation though. As I said, not completely shoddy. But it does show that he’s got better since.
Aside from that, I don’t think any marked difference in quality shows between this and his other books. I’d personally rank it as less good than Way of Kings or The Final Empire, but better than the other Mistborn books, certainly better than Alloy of Law. So around the same place as Warbreaker. The plot is good, and the characters doubly so. One of them turns around half way through the book and really starts to surprise you, and it is one of the most excellent and worthwhile things. The world setting is also nice, and the magic system, and very different from that of Mistborn or Way of Kings. It’s actually very reminiscent of the Charter Magic Sabriel/Lirael/Abhorsen by Garth Nix, in that the magic is based on signs you have to draw. There is also an appendix, which pleases me.
The basic plot summary runs thus: foreign princess comes to Arelon for a political marriage, but finds the situation there not how she expected, and she has to intervene against all sorts of things to protect both her own country and the one she’s ended up in. So there’s loads of intrigue and political shenanigans, even though the book isn’t particularly long. And they all tie up neatly and nothing is rushed, without the book having to be enormous, which is something of a bonus. And it is a damn good plot.
There are some characters I genuinely love in here (though not the female lead, Sarene… no one is surprised by this), even some of the baddies, and they are all given some proper consideration and depth, which I really appreciate. I’ve been quite lucky recently in reading loads of stuff with really decent characterisation. It’s going to be terrible the next time I read a China Miéville book.
All in all, then, a really really decent fantasy novel. Tiny issue, but it doesn’t taint everything else irreparably. Definitely not worth the warning about it being less good than his other stuff.
Next time: Dragons! 19th century warfare! Ships!