20151222_000616[1]Prince Raoden of Arelon awoke early that morning, completely unaware that he had been damned for all eternity.

These are the opening words to one of the best novels ever written: Elantris, by Brandon Sanderson. I first read it in 2011, barely more than a year into my career as an editor. It immediately became one of my favorites, if not my most favorite novel ever.

It had been sitting on my shelf for years, though, waiting to be read. The problem was that the paperback copy doesn’t tell you what the story is about, and so I never knew if I was in the mood for it. My reading list is so long, and I stopped counting at a hundred, that I kept deciding to try something else. This is after reading both Mistborn and The Way of Kings. I’d heard good things, but not knowing what to expect kept making me pick something else.

Well, now it’s the only novel I’ve ever considered worth getting in a collector’s quality leatherbound edition. And not to give you a clickbait kind of hook, but what Brandon Sanderson put on the personalization inside made me tear up.

Considering how I feel about this book, I should have done a review on it years ago. I even said on this blog that it deserves its own review. For some reason, I kept putting it off. Maybe it’s just that I didn’t know if I could do it justice. I’m glad I didn’t, though. If I had, then I couldn’t have given my readers this story. 

Elantris is the book, if I had to pick only one, that I would assign to a class on creative writing. Alas, lacking an actual degree in the subject, I only do guest lectures; but you’d be hard-pressed to find a better book to study as an example of strong characters, engaging ideas, unraveling mysteries, and surprising twists, all in one satisfying, single volume. And it does it all without depending on a single familiar fantasy element. If you know someone who has never read fantasy and this book can’t show him or her the reasons why the genre is great, I doubt there’s another book that could do the job.

It’s also very personally important to me, but we’ll get into that later. First, here’s the story.

The opening line I gave you at the start of this review is the beginning of chapter one; but the story actually begins with a short prologue, describing the fabled city of Elantris. A magnificent jewel of a city, filled with incredible magic; where the inhabitants are worshiped as gods, but all start as normal men and women.

The Shaod, it was called. The Transformation. It struck randomly — usually at night, during the mysterious hours when life slowed to rest. The Shaod could take beggar, craftsman, nobleman, or warrior. when it came, the fortunate person’s life ended and began anew; he would discard his old, mundane existence and move to Elantris. Elantris, where he would live in bliss, rule in wisdom, and be worshiped for eternity. 

Eternity ended ten years ago.

The city of Elantris was once a city of life and magic; now it is a corpse, decaying, filled with the damned. The magical transformation that once could transform anyone into a living god now transforms them into the living dead. Prince Raoden, son of the man struggling to hold the fragile society to rise from Elantris’ shadow, is the latest to fall victim to the curse. His body has been transformed into a corpse-like, leperous form, moving despite being dead; and he is powerfully, almost overwhelmingly, hungry. With the bare minimum of ceremony, Raoden is placed inside the walls of Elantris before the shame can cause political problems for his father.

And all that happens by page three. This story is about what happens next.

I enjoy talking about hooking your audience, and I have a list of books I’ll quote from. Elantris isn’t one of them, but not because it has no good hooks. Far from it. It has four. Elantris has three main characters: Prince Raoden, introduced in Chapter One; Princess Sarene, who gets Chapter Two; and Hrathen, who makes his dramatic entrance to the tune of the Imperial March in Chapter Three. The prologue and these three chapters form an excellent study in quick hooks.

Prologue: Eternity ended ten years ago.

Raoden, Chapter One: Prince Raoden of Arelon awoke early that morning, completely unaware that he had been damned for all eternity.

Sarene, Chapter Two: Sarene stepped off the ship to discover that she was a widow. It was shocking news, of course, but not as devestating as it could have been. After all, she had never met her husband.

Hrathan, Chapter Three: None of Arelon’s people greeted their savior when he arrived. It was an affront, but not an unexpected one.

The story lives up to those hooks. Time is running out; the massive empire of Fjordell is expanding, and the only thing that ever kept it from subjecting the people of Arelon to forced conversion was Elantris itself. Hrathan has three months to convince them to repent before the country is destroyed. Sarene’s marriage to Raoden was an attempt at a political alliance to keep that from happening. And, unknown to Sarene, Raoden has very little time before he succumbs to the true curse of Elantris: the Hoed, the madness that comes with the unceasing pain of death.

The fate of the world is told through the eyes of individuals. The troubles of nations are seen through a lens of very personal risks and ideals. All with a ticking clock somewhere in the distance.

If you are even halfway intrigued, you should get a copy right now. I won’t complain if you stop reading this post to read that book.

20151221_235918[2]Now, I’ve told you why this is a great book on its own — or rather, I’ve told you as much as I can without spoilers. I cannot understate how great that story is, and how fun it is to see the buildup to the stunning, staggering, obvious and yet so masterfully hidden finale. I talked about that a little in my article on setup and payoff.

But this book, as I said, is also a very personal book for me. As masterful as the writing is, Raoden’ struggle inside Elantris is what comes to my mind every time I think of this book. It’s what interests me the most when I page through it on a re-read.

The words “undead” and “zombie” are never mentioned, nor the phrase “living dead”; but Raoden has it drummed into him in the first chapter that yes, he is dead. And aside from the endless hunger and lack of heartbeat, Sanderson shows a side of being dead that goes in a different direction from any other story: the constant, unceasing pain of injuries that never heal.

Every injury an Elantrian suffers remains just as painful as the moment it was gained. Within moments of first being placed inside Elantris, Raoden stubs his toe. You all know how that feels — that sharp, stabbing pain that feels so intense for a moment before fading into a dull ache. Only for him, it doesn’t fade. That moment, that pain, will last for eternity . . . or until he goes mad.

As I said recently in my article on writing characters in pain, I have never found an author who has a better treatment of what it’s like to live with that kind of suffering. It even brought me to tears, once, when one of the Elantrians said the following to Raoden:

“Those people gave in to their pain because they couldn’t find purpose — their torture was meaningless, and when you can’t find reason in life, you tend to give up on it. This wound will hurt, but each stab of pain will remind me that i earned it with honor. That is not such a bad thing, I think.” 

It’s not my favorite line from the book. It’s not the greatest, most powerful truth of living with pain that you can find within these pages. I’ll get to that one in a moment. This passage, however, is what I use to describe it to other people. It’s how I try to frame the mentality you have to have to get through each day.

It’s hard to grasp without the other person having experienced it. When you live each day in pain, you have two choices. Give up, or find a reason to go on.

Brandon Sanderson and Matthew Bowman

This is me years ago, the one time I met Brandon Sanderson. I wasn’t going to get a photo, but one of his people insisted. I don’t tend to get great photographs, especially when I’ve been waiting in line while trying to ignore the continuing and increasing pain in my body. That expression on my face? That’s me trying to look casual and cheerful rather than grimacing or gritting my teeth.

If I had known about the story in Elantris at the time, I would have referenced it. I would have thanked Sanderson for what he’d written. And even if he remembers me — he did remark on my shirt, as it has been a long time since he’d seen that early Schlock Mercenary design — there’s no way he’d remember my name.

Why is that important?

Because of what he put in my copy of the Elantris tenth-anniversary leatherbound edition.


It’s purely coincidence. Sanderson does this when he personalizes books. He’ll work off of a list of things from the book being signed, rotating through it with each successive book he signs. He didn’t recognize my name. I never told him about what this book means to me. There are probably a lot of lines he used from this book that reference pain.

But he picked my favorite passage, found in Chapter Sixteen.

The man had come looking for a magical solution to his woes, but he had found an answer much more simple. Pain lost its power when other things became more important. Kahar didn’t need a potion or an Aon to save him — he just needed something to do.

I teared up when I saw it. I was just flipping the pages, admiring the art, enjoying the feel of the book; the signed title page was really just an afterthought. Now, though?

Coincidences can be wonderful.

And no, you cannot borrow my copy.