I feel it a little unfair to Sanderson that I read his debut novel Elantris after being swept away by his splendid Mistborn trilogy. While Elantris suffers (but only a little!) in comparison, it has all the trademarks of Sanderson’s writing: an unusual magic system, political intrigue, and a preoccupation with religion.
Elantris was the city of god-like mages, ordinary people transformed via the Shaod into silvery-skinned creatures of great beauty, capable of great magic. Then, ten years before the start of the story, Elantris fell, its shining towers grimed and blackened, its streets turned into sludge, its inhabitants turned into demented and deformed creatures (sez David,”I didn’t know this was going to be about zombies!”). Magic is gone, and the Shaod is no longer a blessing, but a curse. The people of Arhel now look to their merchant-king and nobility as rulers.
When Prince Raoden succumbs to the curse, he is sent secretly into Elantris where he goes about helping his new people and trying to figure out what caused the city’s magic to fail. Meanwhile, his fiancee Sarene arrives to find her husband supposedly dead, and her new country ready to implode due to the King’s feckless policies. She sets about to sort things out, but matters are complicated by the arrival of Hrathon, a Fjordell high priest whose orders are to convert the heathen nation of Arhel to the worship of Jaddeth in three months or else the entire nation will be overrun and put to the sword by his countrymen.
Sanderson deftly handles the three strands, weaving them together to provide a satisfying conclusion. Raoden comes across as genuinely likeable, and he really is a good leader (as opposed to the reader just being told so). Sarene is a complicated and generally enjoyable package of political acuity, bossiness and vulnerability. She does have her moments of being over-the-top, and I can understand why so many of the men in her homeland were intimidated by her! I was all set to despise Hrathen, but Sanderson handled his character sympathetically. Of all the cool magical things that happen in the climax, the ones that resonated with me on an emotional level involve Hrathen.
And, also amazing to me in a genre filled with series, Sanderson packs all this magic and war and political turmoil into one standalone novel. There is always wiggle room for more sequels in the Elantris world, but this particular story is complete. I would recommend this to all fantasy lovers who enjoy detailed worldbuilding and a plot that is both fast-paced and intricate.