I've just finished reading Brandon Sanderson's first novel, Elantris. Since I read his most recent novel, The Way of Kings, about a week ago, this means that I've read every novel he's published so far. I'll get to The Way of Kings later, but for now, what about Elantris?
Let's start with the premise, which is original: Elantris is the city where the Elantrians live. Elantrians are those people blessed by magic: it can come to anyone, rich or poor, old or young. The blessing transforms them physically, giving them silvery skin and white hair, at the same time that it gives them access to AonDor, the magic they wield by tracing runes in the air. Their city glows with the magic, which imbues every corner of it. But ten years ago, the magic stopped working. Those blessed with it were cursed. Their skin became gray with black spots, their hearts stopped beating and they no longer bled. You couldn't kill them by normal means, but they continued to feel pain. In fact, they felt it even worse: since they could no longer heal, their wounds never stopped hurting, and a neverending hunger gnawed at them. (Okay, so they're magical zombies.) The common people turned against them, killing them. But the blessing never stopped occurring at random. Anyone now struck by the curse is sealed away in Elantris, a city that is now crumbling and covered in slime. There they live wretched lives, unable to die, but slowly going mad from the hunger and pain.
The story centers around three characters. The first is Raoden, previously the prince of the surrounding nation, Arelon, now cursed by Elantris. He attempts to build a real society among the Elantrians, even while trying to discover the reason for its fall. The second is Hrathen, a high priest of the Derethi religion. He's come to Arelon to convert it to his religion, before his master brings destruction upon it. Finally, there's Sarene, Raoden's betrothed. She arrives in Arelon to find that the betrothed she never met is dead, unaware that his true fate has been hidden by his father. She takes it upon herself to oppose Hrathen's conversion, while trying to fix the problems caused by the king's inept rule.
It's a colorful and original premise. But, after reading his more recent work, I can confidently say that Sanderson is a better writer now than he was then. Simply from the point of view of style and technique, you can see how he's improved his writing style, learned where to put the details in his descriptions, and made his dialogue smoother and more natural. While modern idiom in fantasy doesn't bother me, in Elantris, Sanderson's use of it can be jarring. He still does it, but you can see how he's gotten better at knowing what works and what doesn't. But he's gotten better in more than just the details of writing, and you can see it in some of the weaknesses of the book.
While his characters have distinct personalities, they're often simplistic, and his characterization can be ham-handed. He really doesn't need to tell us that Raoden's an optimist at least once a chapter, or that Sarene's bold but insecure.
Plot-wise, there are a lot of twists in this book. Some of them really are surprising and necessary, but some just feel contrived. And none of them had quite the feel that I think the big reveals should have: when a reader is completely surprised, but thinks to himself, "I should have seen that coming."
I say all this not to say that it's a bad book. It's actually a very good one, and better than most of the fantasy fiction out on the market. Sanderson's one of the best new writers in the field. But I always find it fascinating to see how writers improve. Almost universally, their first book is going to be their worst one, and I was impressed by how good Elantris was for a first novel. But I'm also happy to say that he's gotten better since.