Authors have amazing jobs. Using only ink and paper (or keys and a screen), they build entire universes merely by thinking of them. It's like playdough for the brain; make it into one shape, change your mind, then make it into another shape. Obviously, there's a bit more to it than that, but in very general terms, that is the job description. As an author, one can explore any idea, no matter how odd, out to its most ridiculous conclusion. You can create hypothetical situations, acting out every part, generating entire lifetimes of strung-together moments. Best of all, as an author, you get to share your creation with others. Others get to travel the thought-paths you've invented, immersing themselves in your ideas, and then drawing their own conclusions. Truly, it is an amazing job.
Now, I'll grant you, not every author does well in accomplishing this. Even outstanding authors can miss their own target. It takes time and practice to become proficient at this task. Brandon Sanderson, however, seems to have a good handle on world-creation. In his debut novel, Elantris, he undertakes to create an epic story told in just one book (a rarity these days in the genre of fantasy). He definitely exceeds expectations! Sanderson takes to epic world building like a drunk to a lake of beer. Admittedly, the story of Elantris had some pockets of density; some chapters took longer to get through than others. This relates back to creating a universe from scratch. Sometimes it can take longer to explain certain phenomena, or sometimes plot lines will require more space to set up than others. Overall though, the story kept moving, and I spent several nights burning the midnight oil, not wanting to put it down.
I'll admit to "geeking out" a few times while reading this book. I loved the analytical look at socio-economic paradigms and their influence on political structures. Sanderson asked some very deep questions of the audience, and left them to make their own conclusions. What is a great civilization? What is a well-run society? What is the difference between the two? What are the similarities and differences between religion and politics? Using Socratic method and his story as a backdrop, Sanderson asks you the reader to reflect on these philosophical queries as you take in the various examples he presents: a religious state where the head of the religion is also the temporal leader, and zealotry is the way to succeed; a completely status-based society wherein your financial prowess is the only measure of success; a traditional monarchy; an Atlantean ideal in which advanced humanoids take care of basic needs for all of society. Each of these archetypes have their merits and flaws, which Sanderson gives with relative unbias. Even more interesting, at one point in the story, Sanderson has the lowest social caste creating their own society from scratch. I think this illustrates the author's own opinion on the matter of what makes a well-run society: everyone doing what they love and creating a sense of productivity and usefulness on the part of every member of society. Having a sense of purpose brings its own happiness. To know one's purpose is appreciated by the rest of the group is also vital.
Questioning the macro themes of society and government are not the only part of this philosophical playground. The characters themselves are an interesting puzzle as well. Each of the characters are representative of various social and cultural archetypes. There is the strong female lead, who is atypical of most other women around her because she "thinks and acts like a man". In some ways I applaud this, but the feminist in me wants to cry over the stereotyping. A female is only strong when she is acting as a man? Why is it considered "weak" to be utterly feminine? If a woman is logical and driven, then she is acting like a man? The gender bias is familiar, and yet it is annoyingly self-perpetuating. Acting like a guy is not the only way a woman can be strong. But I digress. As a counterpoint to her character, Sanderson created a male rival whose goal is to proselytize to the people and convert the government to a zealot religious state. In a way, it was like seeing elements of the liberal versus conservative debate. Both characters believed in the absolute rightness of their actions, yet could not see how they were still part of the paradigm, changing very little except the momentary sentiment of the people.
The part of religion played a hand in the fabric of the story as well. Sanderson presents several religions and their doctrines for consideration. Again the author asks questions of the audience and allows them to draw their own conclusions. I found it intriguing that the corruption of ideals is wholly dependent on the person and not the doctrine they follow. This may seem obvious , but in our world today, we are quick to point out how external forces have led us astray, justifying harming ourselves, others, and our environment. Doctrine itself, no matter how well-written and loftily intended at the outset, can be corrupted over time by the actions of individuals; this is true for religion or politics. The characters use politics and religion equally as justifications for their actions. Innate morality is the only true measurement of right and wrong. If the individual is morally bankrupt, they will use any external reasoning to prop up their righteousness for their actions.
More subtle still is the arcane force known as the Dor. It is the energetic force of the universe, much like chi. Each society and/or religion has some way of tapping into this force; each one has their own version of what it is and how to use it. Some use a form of martial arts; others have perverse rituals. The advanced humanoid race known as Elantrians tapped into this power using various symbols written on any surface, even in the air itself. Use of the Dor was not restricted to those who were just; the innate morality of the individual dictated the use of the raw power. I find that to be an apt conclusion. Much like Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the individual chooses how to use the power with which they are entrusted.
Given the discussion of morality, the author's examinations of intentions, actions, and consequences is just as intense. Meaning well and doing good deeds are relative concepts. Sanderson gives several examples of immediate good versus greater good, He asks the reader ponder when does one outweigh the other. How does one decide between the two? Is there an absolute moral high ground? I have my own opinions on the matter; the author confirmed them with his examples. However, others may come to differing answers.
It's been hard to write this review, given the density of the topics covered. Reading the other reviews, some found it to be sluggish, or the writing to be obvious. I, for one, didn't find the plots overly obvious. Of course, a) I'm no good at chess because I can't think more than one move ahead; b) I don't care how obvious the plot line is, I care about the journey. How will the author take me from point A to point B? People who get upset with obvious plot lines don't seem to care for the journey; they only care that the author told them where they are going. I also have to disagree with one reviewer who claimed Sanderson violated the show-don't-tell rule. I think the author left ample room for readers to draw their own conclusions, unless the reviewer was complaining that Sanderson was too detailed in his explanations of the world he had created. Either way, I don't think Sanderson told more than he showed. I have to say, for a first published work, this was incredible. I liked the author's Mistborn series, and after reading Elantris, I am excited to read his final installments to the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. This book, and the entire universe it contains, gets my highest recommendations.