The Fall of Eden
Sometimes, in fiction, we have to sidestep substandard writing — set it out of our minds, gloss over its inadequacies — and instead embrace plot, character or an ingenuity of world building. A novel with these qualities and strong writing is obviously preferable, but a novel with only the latter can still prove readable if we’re willing to forgive its lack of surface beauty. Thus Brandon Sanderson’s debut, Elantris: a traditional Fantasy novel replete with a strong-headed princess, a prince in disguise, a medieval-esque kingdom in turmoil, and a battalion of warrior monks set on destroying a nation of unbelievers. Sanderson’s prose, which is unappealing and sometimes even poor, overlays a well-formed world whose systems of governance and gender relations offer an alternate play on fantasy stereotypes, and whose politico-religious turmoil is intriguing, if finally unfulfilled.
Elantris was once a beautiful city of marble and light, a city of men and women who had become like Gods. With their white hair and silver skin, their apparent immortality, and their powers to heal and to endlessly provide through a form of rune magic called AonDor, they were considered divinities. Yet all of them had been human once, and had only received these powers through an inexplicable, and apparently arbitrary, force:
The Shaod, it was called. The Transformation. It struck randomly — usually at night, during the mysterious hours when life slowed to rest. The Shaod could take beggar, craftsman, noblemen, or warrior. When it came, the fortunate person’s life ended and began anew; he would discard his old, mundane existence, and move to Elantris. Elantris, where he could live in bliss, rule in wisdom, and be worshipped for eternity.
The city stood on the coast of Arelon, the country from which nearly all Elantrians hailed and over which they maintained a reign of peace and prosperity without poverty. The humans of Arelon had no need to thrive commercially (although some of them did), or to worship material things (although, again, some of them did), or even to take up arms for their own defense. Through their magics the Elantrians provided food and essentials for all citizens, a state of affairs that theoretically made each man’s capacity for subsistence equal to the next. They also protected Arelene borders from the neighboring and warlike nation of Fjorden. It was a benevolently totalitarian Eden of a place.
But then, suddenly and without warning or reason, Elantris fell. A vast chasm cracked across Arelon and, in just days, the great city turned to decay, even its hard marble crumbling and rotting. The Elantrians themselves became monstrous: their silver skin turning grey, wrinkly and black-spotted and their white hair falling out leaving them bald. Their immortality, in turn, became a dreadful curse under which they could neither die nor truly live. No wound they received, not even a scrape or a bump, would heal, and although they did not need to eat to live their hunger consumed them. In horror the human people of Arelon rose up and destroyed the Elantrians in a terrible revolution, replacing their government with a "feudal" hierarchy whose distribution of power was based strictly upon wealth. The man who became King, Iadon, was also the richest of a new breed of striving Arelene merchants, while the men who became his barons had once been his colleagues. The poor were very quickly overcome and forced into a life of serf-like exploitation designed to further increase the income of the wealthy.
The Shaod, however, did not stop simply because Elantris was no more. But now, instead of a blessing, it was curse. Those it fell upon were summarily banished into the now destroyed city, where they were left to rot, without food but always hungry, slowly loosing their minds from pain. So when ten years later King Iadon’s son, the Crown Prince Raoden, is taken with the Shaod there is no hesitation about what must be done with him. He is taken into Elantris and abandoned. His father announces his sudden death to cover the shame, and orchestrates a mock funeral. This state of affairs is not dissimilar to the fate of a leper in the Middle Ages (and indeed, the Shaod is not so different from leprosy): the sufferer is declared dead to the world.
Meanwhile Raoden’s prospective bride, Princess Sarene of Teod, sails towards Arelon unaware of her fiancé’s "death". When she arrives she discovers that, despite never having attended a wedding ceremony (and, indeed, never have met Raoden in the flesh), her engagement contract binds her to the union. She has become a widow in a strange land without ever having been married. Still, Sarene, strong-willed and not given to moping, sets out to engage fully in the politics of her adopted country. After all, the marriage alliance was always a political move meant to cement together Teod and the new Arelon against the ever threatening and empire-building Fjorden. There is no reason this shouldn’t still hold true. And, indeed, no sooner has she arrived in Kae than she is confronted by one of Fjorden’s most powerful men, the gyorn (or high priest) Hrathen. He has been sent to convert Arelon to Shu-Derethi, the militaristic religion that underlies Fjorden’s power. He hopes to do it through his wit and political cunning — both qualities Sarene shares — but he is not averse to taking the country in blood and fire.
Thereafter the novel is about the survival of Arelon: the maintenance of its peace and holding back the Fjorden threat. While Sarene does her best to counteract Hrathen’s manoeuvres, Raoden seeks to understand the fall of Elantris. He hopes to find an explanation for the failure of the magic of AonDor, and an escape from his own cursed and ugly state. Along the way the action is heated, if slightly breathless. Elantris really does have something for everyone in the way of plot, what with its political machinations, its family feuds, its swords and sorcery, and its inevitable romance. The fact that it is also complete in and of itself can’t help but be satisfying and pleasantly refreshing. Sanderson has set himself up for possible sequels in the same world - there is still a lot of mileage in the AonDor magic system, for example — but as a story Elantris is satisfactorily fulfilled. (Mistborn, due out in the US this month, is not an Elantris sequel.)
The potential is all there then, but, as I say, the writing is poor, occasionally wince-worthy. Sanderson is no poet: his prose and dialogue mean business and there is little room for nicety. (I should note that the writing picks up markedly in the last 30 pages — more recently written perhaps?) This is not necessarily such a bad thing, but it does tend to produce a lack of subtlety. His characters are forever explaining things to one another in bland conversations, while Sarene’s engaging gender conflicts — her desire to be seen as feminine despite her "masculine" political activities — lead to an unconscionable number of pep talks and ego-rubs. Sometimes he takes the "show, don’t tell" rule to heart, but at other times discards it completely, explaining his characters actions in an overly invasive manner.
Fortunately the characters are somewhat interesting which helps to negate bad narratorial habits. Sanderson shows unexpected deftness, for example, in drawing out Sarene and Gyorn Hrathen, who spends the novel engaged in a crisis of disbelief. He also does a respectable job with otherwise stock characters like King Iadon, Captain Eondel and Baron Shuden. Perhaps the least convincing of the lot though, is Prince Raoden, whose extraordinary goodness, generosity and social optimism begin to grate. He is that most beloved thing of fantasy novelists: a sincerely noble leader of men. True, he does fear his own failures, and his struggles with being an Elantrian work, but his brand of idealism and its successes smack of… well… fantasy. Nobody solves social problems with such ease and aplomb; even great men aren’t that great.
Which allows me to segue finally into Elantris’ social themes. The idea of the great city and of the merchant-ruled Arelon that follows its fall is intriguing — it engages quite appropriately with different ideologies of leadership and government, juxtaposing a kind of extreme Utopianism with an equally extreme form of materialism. Arelon was a country in which the Elantrians, dictators of an eminently mild cast, provided for everyone but, consequently, controlled all basic resources and stifled human creativity. It becomes a country whose political philosophy is expressed entirely in terms of profit and return, and in which the divide between poor and rich is no longer just aesthetic. Both systems are socially and culturally problematic; neither is just and the problems issuing from each system are made manifold by the narrative. But Sanderson’s fictional solution, a strange mixture between the two that stinks of charitable absolutism, is ultimately disappointing and fails to properly connect with the thematic issues of subsistence, competition and humanity at stake.
Brandon Sanderson ends up sounding like an advocate of John Ruskin, partially hybridized with Thomas Carlyle and Elantris becomes the fantasy manifesto for the Victorian Arts and Crafts movement with a dash of Heroes and Hero Worship thrown in. Basically, Raoden’s (and Sarene’s) philosophy is Ruskin’s: if you give people purpose and meaning in their work then they will be happy whatever they’re doing. Each man or woman’s gifts, once tapped into, guarantee a fulfilled and healthy lifestyle; and if individuals feel their work contributes, or makes a difference, to changing society for the better they will change society for the better. All the machine cogs should be made to feel like wheels. But also implicit in this is Carlyle’s belief that all people need leaders and that some men (read=nobles, Kings and Elantrians in Sanderson’s case) are natural leaders. They are the ones that dispense benevolent orders; they’re the ones who work the machine.
Surely such a simple and enforced Utopia is too naïve to make a convincing conclusion?