Elantris: Tell Don’t Show… Without Much Telling

It’s been a while since a book made me genuinely frustrated.

What were you smoking, Mr. Card?

Elantris is a very frustrating book. It scratches the surface of greatness but never manages to break through. Instead, it continues to skim the surface until it eventually comes to a disappointing end. The entire time I was reading, I was wondering when it was going to get good. Then, when the climax started, I realized that would never happen.

Elantris stars three separate characters. Raoden, prince of Arelon, is afflicted by the cure of Elantris, turning him into a lifeless being; he’s thrown into the city of Elantris, left to rot and starve. Sarene, the woman who would’ve been Raoden’s wife, takes over for him in Arelon, striving to reform the failing government Raoden’s father created. Meanwhile, Hrathen, a high-ranking priest of the Derethi religion, seeks to convert Arelon’s populace and prevent a brutal invasion.

The basic premise of this book is a solid one. A city that used to be holy becoming a cursed hellhole? Our protagonist now needs to fix it? It’s like a prototype for Kaladin’s story arc in Way of Kings!

Which makes it so much more painful to read. Because the entire time, I’m wondering why I’m not just rereading the better version in Way of Kings.

The characters are my biggest gripe in this book. They’re all just so… lifeless. Their flaws are either so minor they change nothing in the plot or they just don’t exist. Raoden has no character flaws whatsoever; he’s a friendly guy that everyone loves. Worse yet: it’s rare for him to ever fail! He’ll just try to do something and 9/10 times, it works out in his favor with little to no issue. Sarene is silghtly better in this regard; she actually has to struggle every now and then. But not very often.

Honestly, the only character I found to be compelling was Hrathen. He’s the only one who consistently has to overcome difficult challenges to achieve his goals. Unfortunately, his personality is as thin as a piece of paper and most of his character arc happens in the final third of the book.

Some of the characters are just depthless plot devices. One character has all of three scenes; his introduction, the big ‘twist’, and the payoff where he helps the protagonist. It’s so contrived and one-dimensional that it’s genuinely infuriating when it happens. You could cut that character out of the book and it would change nothing. In fact, his presence in the finale actually makes the entire book worse.

Speaking of which: this is the single least engaging or satisfying climax to a fantasy book I think I’ve ever encountered. It practically comes out of nowhere and drags on for far too long. The few things that were actually set up and built up to are over so quickly that you wonder why they were even there. For example, it’s set up early on that the women are learning how to fight with swords. Then, at the end, they use that to fight back… for all of a paragraph before they’re defeated.

Why the fuck was that in the book?

Some things just come out of fucking nowhere right at the last minute. For example: it’s setup early on that the only magic in this world came from Elantris. But then the book reveals that no, the evil antagonistic religion has their own magic system! Which was not set up or hinted at at any point in the book prior to its reveal. It comes so far out of left field that it feels like Sanderson accidentally forgot to add a scene or ten.

Nothing in this book is satisfying in the slightest. Every scene that could be even remotely interesting is brushed under the rug super quickly. The whole thing is tell with no show. How do we know that Raoden was beloved? Because they tell us. How do we know that Sarene was an outcast? Because they tell us. How do we know the antagonists are evil and threatening? Because they tell us. We never actually see any of this. Therefor, we’re never given a reason to believe it or care.

It doesn’t help that some of the writing is just straight-up stupid. There’s a scene where an antagonist is threatening to hurt Raoden and his band as an act of vengeance. Then, in the same chapter, Raoden thinks that said character doesn’t seem like the type to take revenge. Motherfucker, she came into your house in order to get revenge on you! You’re supposed to be a good judge of character!

And then there’s the ending. Jesus Christ, this ending is so pathetic! It’s ham-fisted, unsatisfying sequel bait, featuring hilariously awful dialogue and yet more tell-don’t-show. Then it all ends so abruptly that it’s honestly jarring! Ten edits and this is the ending they went with?

Elantris is a truly disappointing book. It takes an interesting premise and fails to execute on it in an interesting way. It’s a sloppy book with inept twists and bland characters. Everything it does has been done better in Sanderson’s later works. This is the one Sanderson novel I’ve reviewed so far that I have no desire to ever read again.

And from the rumors I’ve heard, Warbreaker is even worse. So… not looking forward to that.

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