I have previous decided that The Name of the Wind was the best book I read in 2011 ... scratch that, because that title now officially goes to Elantris.
Initially buying and reading this because of how much I enjoyed Mistborn and The Way of Kings, I was definitely not disappointed! The story involves what one can typically expect from Sanderson; an intriguing system of magic, a whole lot of politics, the impending collapse of the world, the best foreshadowing I have ever encountered and a climax that then climaxes some more. His novels seem to follow a kind of formula, in at least the way they are structured and in my opinion, it is a total winner.
We follow the perspectives of three main characters; Raoden who is taken by the Shaod in the first few pages and sent to Elantris; Princess Sarene who arrives to find Raoden 'dead' and subsequently takes the country into her own hands; and Hrathen, a gyorn (high priest) with a mission to convert the nation (and then a few others throughout). To begin with I was mostly interested in Raoden and his experience in Elantris and began resenting the other two. I wanted to hear more about his comparatively simple story of the life of an Elantrian and his plight to create a life within the city. Sarene and Hrathen's parts mostly fulfilled the unfolding political dramas and body of the story, yet they were too disconnected to Raoden for it to really interest me. For a time in the middle it became extremely frustrating when I as the reader knew so much more than the characters, but this suspense only made the following events so much sweeter. It wasn't long before the author's intentions were revealed and all three perspectives begin to work together to fulfill the story.
While it took me a little while to warm to the world and characters, I devoured the last two thirds of the book (within the last 24 hours mind you) which had me on the edge of my seat (figuratively, as I spent the entire day in bed). There was never a dull moment and never was I able to guess what was to come next - there were literally times where I gasped out loud and had to take a moment!
Given that Elantris as a stand-alone novel is quite short when compared to Sanderson's other multi-book works, I found I came to know each character quite well, even the minor ones. There was a certain depth to them and their motivations which reminded me of characters from Ian Irvine's Three Worlds series, which is described as a Darwinian fantasy; the characters are not inherently good or evil, but merely trying to survive. This was especially the case for Hrathen, who becomes so much more interesting as the story progresses.
Interestingly in this book, the fantasy/magic element was not the presiding one. While this could arguably be the case for Mistborn for example (with political machinations featuring heavily throughout), Mistborn places great emphasis on its system of magic, magic-wielders and other supernatural figures. Elantris focuses around a similar political-fueled plot, but lacks a magic system that is equally complex and utilised. This is partly due to the story revolving around the downfall of the Elantrians and their magic of course, but also because of Sanderson's strength (in my opinion) to focus just as much, if not more, on elements of the story which deal essentially with a human experience.
The most impressive part of this book is the incredibly fast-paced yet sure-footed events leading up to a spectacular climax and ending. It actually reminded a lot of the action-filled conclusion of Brent Weeks' Night Angel trilogy. Just as I thought I had reached the climax and had the ending picked, everything was turned on its head as Sanderson ruthlessly begins to tear everything down, calling in multiple favours from foreshadowing earlier in the story so subtle you would never pick it. In an almost contradiction to my last paragraph, Sanderson shines here, demonstrating a masterful grasp of his original system of magic, never once relying on a suspension of disbelief to get through.
The resolution was quite swift yet surprisingly fulfilling. I find when I am usually this enraptured by a story that the end leaves me feeling empty and wanting more, yet as I reached the final page I was quite content. Of course there were things not wholly answered or explored to their fullest, but not irritatingly so.
I would recommend Elantris to any fantasy lover, especially since it is such a rewarding read without having to commit to a lengthy series.
In other news ... I cancelled my online order of The Land of Painted Caves because I was worried I had ordered the wrong version and I actually found one in a bookstore, which I intend to buy tomorrow and begin reading. I also got the autobiography of Jane Lynch for Christmas and while not fantasy, I think I will enjoy!