Warning: Minor Spoilers Ahead
I am so torn on this book! There is so much to like, so many interesting ideas and characters. And then there's this one flaw that kept niggling away at me, that prevented me from really losing myself in this book, and I wanted to get lost here. It's frustrating! But I think this is an early book in Sanderson's career, so I have great hopes that future books will fix that problem.
The city of Elantris lies in slimy neglect. Ten years ago, the men and women who had been selected by some unknown criteria to become Elantrians, to wield magic and the powers of the city, fell prey to a sickness that appears to have killed them. Except they are not dead. And more citizens of Arelon are taken every week by the disease, which strikes seemingly at random. They are thrown into the city to fend for themselves, their hearts no longer beating, their hair fallen out, their skin grey.
Oh, dear. The more I think about the brief synopsis I want to write, the less brief it seems! I'll try not to spend too much time on it, I promise!
All right, there are two main characters. One of them, Prince Raoden, heir to the throne, is taken by the Sheod, the disease that makes people into what the former Elantrians have become. He was beloved by the people in a way his father was not, and sees only the best in everyone. An idealist, he tries to take an Elantris that has fallen into chaos, and reform it into a liveable society.
Sarene, the princess of a neighboring country, was on her way to marry Prince Raoden when he was taken, and has been told he was killed. Her marriage contract is nonetheless binding, and with her myriad skills, she tries to figure out who her husband would have been, and make a place for herself in a crumbling kingdom.
One of the things I liked most was the feeling of a society in flux. Elantris fell, not hundreds or thousands of years ago, but ten years ago. The kingdom of Arelon is still trying to figure out what it is in the wake of that loss, and has settled on some weird merchant/royalty hybrid. It's not going well. The throne could topple at any moment. Oh, and there's an exterior religious threat.
And what Elantris is, and the implications of the strange changes that were made when the city and its inhabitants fell, that was fascinating. Particularly the revelation that with the body in a state of stasis, it can no longer heal itself. But pain was not turned off. So a stubbed toe will never stop hurting. A broken arm will never heal, and the pain will be excruciating. A cut will never close - although you won't bleed. Lack of food will not kill you, but it will make you brain-breakingly hungry. The implications of this for a desolate society were dealt with very well, and this was an immediate attention-grabber.
So, those are the things I liked. But the main thing that drove me crazy was the way the two main characters seemed teleported in from our time period. If you don't want to do a monarchy with your fantasy, fantastic! That is too often the starting point. I encourage writing fantasy novels that question those basic assumptions of fantasy. But if you change those things, you have to give me context. You have to tell me how Raoden got to the surprisingly modern thoughts on personal liberty and effective peasant management. You have to tell me how Sarene developed. Because as it is, it feels like you took two people from my time period, and dumped them in another setting, even though they were supposed to have been born and bred there.
Changing social structures is great. Changing them without giving me context means that the two main characters, both of whom I liked, I often also found jarring. Why would they have exactly the same viewpoint as fairly leftie people of the early 21st century? Why? I liked that Sarene was interesting and complex and emancipated. But too little is given to give her context, and so often she and Raoden seemed to float apart from this story, part of the society they're in, and yet alien to it. (Again, it's fine if people manage to break societal conventions, but there HAS. TO. BE. CONTEXT.)
So, in the end, I liked Elantris even when it bothered me. I just wished I wasn't getting pulled out of its spell so often.