Elantris - a foray into the cosmere
Elantris is a fantasy novel published in 2005 and written by Brandon Sanderson. It is his debut novel, and part of his larger Cosmere universe. In Elantris, Sanderson explores themes of institutional religion, gender norms and misogyny, as well as what gives people meaning and the drive to move forward in life. These three main themes are each explored throughout the three different viewpoint characters: Raoden, a young prince banished to the titular city of Elantris after he became afflicted with a curse, Serene, a princess who was to be his wife, and Hrathen, a high ranking priest who has come to the country of Arelon in which the two other characters reside. The book itself is also divided into three parts.
Raoden’s curse turned his skin black and disfigured. Now banished and locked inside the city along with the other afflicted ones, he must figure out what to do with his life. So far in Elantris there are three main groups vying for power, although the fear of grave injury seems to have caused a stalemate, fighting is too dangerous because wounds do not heal or disappear over time. However, most people are not in league with three gangs, instead they sit still and writhe in pain and hunger, with no drive to live. Raoden, formerly a prince, takes it upon himself to recruit the new arrivals to the city within his fold, using their unique skills such as carpentry and leatherworking to give them newfound purpose within the city of Elantris.
From this, we can gather that humans need purpose and goals to pursue in order to keep on living, something which Raoden provides for them.
This is most interesting when put into context and contrasted with Hrathen, the high ranking priest or Gyorn of the Derethi religion. However, the tenants and stories espoused by the religion are on the same level as technobabble in a science fiction work. It doesn’t particularly inform the story much apart from a few instances in which Hrathen debates Serene on the theology of the Derethi religion, although there again the specifics are not important and the focus is much more about the dynamic being presented between the two characters. Which do inform the themes of misogyny somewhat, but not religion. It is worth mentioning that Sanderson himself is a mormon. The Derethi religion has elements of Christianity, especially with its focus on converting the entire world to it, which is reminiscent of when the apostles received the Great Commission from Jesus himself, in which he told them to baptize all nations. It most resembles the Mormon church, which is clearly shown through the fact that the highest ranking member of the Derethi religion is capable of convening with their god, which is similar to the Presidents, also referred to as “Prophet, seer and revelator,” within the Mormon church. They are supposedly capable of receiving new information from god. The Derethi church however, is incredibly militaristic and violent.
Serene is a woman fighting against power structures which keep her down because of her gender. When she first arrives in Arelon and goes to greet the king, she is dismissed halfway through her introduction and sent to go knitting. Serene however, decides to use this to her advantage, putting on an act of stupidity. This is most clearly shown when she questions the Derethi priest in an attempt to sway the listeners away from him, her simple questions causing the priest to stumble. As we can gather from this, Serene defies gender norms, and this is further expanded upon through the character of her uncle, Kiin, whom despite his large physique and masculine appearance, enjoys cooking food, which the other characters, especially the other old noblemen remark upon as being out of the norm, especially considering that he could simply hire someone else do it and spare himself the bother.
In the book, when Sarene has her first meeting with the King of Arelon at court, which I mentioned earlier, she is told to “go knit, or whatever else it is you women do.” This is a very explicit way of showing a society’s contempt for women, while it is stated in the book by other characters that the King himself isn’t all that well liked and could be easily toppled by a change in the hearts of the people, it wouldn't be unreasonable to argue that the main head of state in a nation, unelected or not, would still be some representation for the general view upon a topic in the country. I think it is reasonable to show such an extreme attitude through extreme statements, some topics simply require it. This is why, when a character says to Sarene that “My Lady, don’t you think you might be overextending yourself? You’ve decided to confront the Gyorn, liberate the court women from masculine oppression, save Arelon’s economy and feed Elantris.” [...] What I want to highlight here is the part about masculine oppression, it is stated in no uncertain terms. That is not to say that misogyny in real life can’t be more subtle, however, the world we are presented with, is simply a little backwards. While you can certainly argue that misogyny should be portrayed explicitly and clearly, it is harder to argue that for “the will to live.” Such an abstract concept should surely be portrayed with a level of subtlety.
However, Sanderson instead decides to go in a different direction. Raoden makes it his mission to give the wretched people of Elantris meaning, to give them goals. He states that while their hearts may no longer be beating, they aren’t dead as long as their will to live remains. He goes about his mission by asking the people he brought under his fold to do what they’re good at through giving them clear and direct tasks. The other theme that is explored through Raoden can be succinctly summarized through the proverb “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Raoden tries to give the people of Elantris meaning in their lives, a break from the monotony of hunger and pain. And it seems to be working, however Serene then enters the city and begins handing out food, throwing a wrench into Raoden’s plans, as the Elantrians become occupied with eating and forget to fulfill their larger goals which give them purpose. This is, however, all fixed once the handouts stop.
Before I conclude, I have one topic left to touch upon. Beware of one minor spoiler in this paragraph. The antagonists are the opposite of Jesus Christ. Jesus went down and spoke with and to the people others didn’t want to associate with, because they were considered “beneath them” and unclean.” Dilaf, a member of the Derethi religion and antagonist says to Sarene: “Before you came to Kae, even the Arelenes hated Elantris. You are the reason they forgot that loathing. You associated with the unholy ones, and you even descended to their level. You are worse than they are—you are one who is not cursed, but seeks to be cursed.” [...] This is one thematic element which I thought was well executed, it is a nice allusion.
In conclusion, when two characters who have previously been kept separate from each other for most of the book, separated both by the distance between each other in-universe and in the form of being point of view characters with chapters dedicated to them, eventually meet, I do get filled with suspense. It is fun to pick up the puzzle pieces and realize that this character, who before seemed unrelated to another, experienced something long ago which connects the two. And when those two pieces fit together, it is satisfying. And yet, the way the themes of the book are explored and handled are not one the same level. It is done fine, but it feels very shallow and much too mechanical at times. Piecing together the mystery of what happened to Elantris together with Raoden is fun, but it never got me to stop and think about the world we live in or how I think. Also, I know you’re not supposed to bring up new ideas in a conclusion, but I’m pretty sure Sanderson uses the word “frowned” to describe a character's facial expression at least twenty times or so in the book, and it gets tiring after a while. And there’s a line where he uses the phrase “mental retardation” which really caught me off guard. And that's what I think about Elantris, more a puzzle of connecting pieces than anything else. Still, I’m interested in reading further, and it was an enjoyable read.