Every Sanderson fan has an origin story—we’re like superheroes in that way. Some of us come to Sanderson via brute force, recommendations from friends wearing us down until we accept our fate. Others enjoy a more roundabout path, stumbling into the Cosmere by complete accident. No matter the method, Sanderson’s work often finds its way to fantasy-obsessed readers, catapulting the books to a spot on our favorite shelves. And everyone’s experience differs, thanks to the author’s frankly impressive portfolio.
I took the roundabout way. After buying my wife the first Mistborn trilogy as a gift, I ended up reading them first (don’t worry, I got her many other presents that I didn’t commandeer for myself). Enamored, I began devouring Brandon Sanderson’s work, making 2021 the year of the Sanderlanche. To date, I’ve logged Mistborn era one, Mistborn era two (The Wax and Wayne Cycle), The Way of Kings, Elantris, and (as of this writing) about 10% of Warbreaker.
Though I’ve still a long way to go on my Sanderson journey, I want to talk about Elantris. I took a pit stop to read Sanderson’s first published novel at the behest of a friend. When I asked him for a recommended reading order, Elantris was his single wild card. “Read it whenever you’d like,” he said. Curious, I slotted the book just behind The Way of Kings. Elantris emerged as a solid Sanderson story. It’s a strong outing with a layered magic system and loads of political intrigue. And while Elantris is great in its own right, the aspects that most resonated with me felt like a framework on which Sanderson expanded and improved in his later work.
For example, each of the three POV characters in Elantris lays the groundwork for other Sanderson characters. And not only does Sanderson’s first published work plant the seeds that will grow into the larger Cosemere—Elantris offers storylines that, while compelling, grow and improve significantly in his future work. In this article, I’ll examine Raoden, Sarene, and Hrathen, and some of the ways in which Sanderson reworks and deepens their arcs and major themes in his later Cosmere stories.
*Heavy spoilers follow for Elantris, Mistborn era one, and The Way of Kings.*
Elantris: A Quick Recap
The city of Elantris, once a shimmering cultural epicenter, the home to god-like beings, has fallen. In the olden days, anyone could hope to randomly undergo the Shaod, a transformation that changes everyday people into a powerful Elantrian. Ten years ago, in an event called the Reod, the ascended Elantrians became blackened, corpse-like husks. Post-Reod, the Shaod is something to be feared. New Elantrians, zombie-like and subject to eternal pain, are cast into the fallen city and ignored by the citizens of nearby Kae.
The four cities that once surrounded Elantris dwindled, leaving only Kae in the Reod’s wake. King Iadon rose to power, developing an income-based meritocracy to select his nobility: The richer you become, the higher you rank. Kae rests on shaky ground and the tenuous government could collapse, should the proper buttons be pushed.
Elantris treats readers to three points of view:
- Prince Raoden, son of Iadon, undergoes the Shaod and is exiled to Elantris, then proclaimed dead by his father.
- Sarene, princess of Teod, betrothed to Raoden and legally married to him following his “death,” due to a legal loophole.
- Hrathen, a Fjordell priest tasked with converting the country of Arelon (where you’ll find Elantris and Kae) to Shu-Dereth, a particularly aggressive sect of the world’s primary religion.
Each character deals with unique challenges posed by a crumbling government, a fallen city, a forgotten power, and an increasingly unruly populace.
Raoden & Kaladin: Hope From The Void
We meet Raoden immediately after he undergoes the Shaod. Sanderson wastes no time or narrative energy shunting Raoden into Elantris, setting the stage for large chunks of book set in the fallen city. Raoden meets and befriends Galladon, a veteran by Elantris’ grim standards. With Galladon in tow, Raoden starts to soak up information about Elantris. By all measures, the place seems hopeless. Elantrians succumb to their eternal pain—even the hurt from the slightest bump or bruise never decreases and Elantrians cannot heal, and those injuries add up over time—devolving into unending bouts of madness. Despite their ability to live in an Elantrian state without eating, hunger drives the city’s locals to attack one another. Three warring factions work to collect as much food as they can in the hopes that they can find the sustenance that their bodies crave.
For newcomer Raoden, Elantris is an endless pit of misery that doesn’t have a rock bottom, with no means of escape. Elantrians rarely last more than a month before hunger and pain drive them to madness. Longtime Elantris residents can be found filling the streets with sounds of mantras repeated ad nauseam, signaling their fall from sanity. The city itself decays, too. Buildings fall, roofs collapse, and a grimy goo covers the entire urban landscape.
In other words, Elantris embodies hopelessness. The city represents a fate worse than death: an eternity of pain and insanity. Elantris holds no promise, no glimmer of hope. Only the inevitable decay into a shell of a person.
With that in mind, let’s consider The Way of Kings, where Kaladin’s story hits many of the same beats. Betrayed, cast from his battalion and sold into slavery, Kaladin is hauled across the vast land to the Shattered Plains. There, crews of expendable bridgemen lay down massive wooden bridges, allowing soldiers to cross from one plateau to the next. Their goal? To secure valuable, powerful gemhearts before the Parshendi can.
Life as a bridgeman, Kaladin finds, rarely lasts long. The bridge crews are disposable pawns meant to draw fire and save precious soldiers from grave injuries. The crews are staffed with an unending flow of convicts, deserters, slaves, and other outcasts, so the pain and misery of watching people die never ceases. Bridge crews are merely a means to an end—they are certainly not people in the eyes of their superiors.
Combine the bone-breaking work of carrying a bridge, the constant risk of taking a flurry of arrows to the chest, and the scant pay, and you’ve got a recipe for weary, broken husks of humanity. When death could find you in myriad ways—dehydration, arrows, exhaustion, sickness, or even as a punishment for random transgressions—what purpose or meaning can you dare to search for in life? Most bridge workers resort to alcohol or other ephemeral pleasures as they grimly await their inevitable gruesome deaths.
Prince Raoden’s story bears some interesting similarities to Kaladin’s origin in The Way of Kings (though the grime and decay of Elantris may also warrant a comparison to Mistborn’s ash-stricken Luthadel, as well). Both thrust into hopeless situations, our heroes must free their new comrades from the depths of said hopelessness or join them in a fate worse than death.
Faced with an abyss of madness or near-certain death, both Raoden and Kaladin neglect the fatalism of their downtrodden counterparts. Instead of wallowing, both protagonists swim stubbornly upstream to reverse the rapid descent of their respective groups. Both men lead by example.
Over time, Raoden and Kaladin earn the trust and respect of a hopeless people. Their narratives explore how respect and hope takes root in the human heart and how a sense of purpose can cure many of life’s woes.
Overall, though, Kaladin’s arc elevates the “Hope From the Void” motif from a compelling trope to a near-perfect story. On a supremely superficial level, Kaladin’s story is fleshed out by virtue of its bigger page count. Dive deeper, and Kaladin’s journey is a professional painter’s masterpiece compared to Raoden’s less expansive first draft.
The Way of Kings sees Kaladin overcome challenge after challenge. Faced with any obstacle—a bribe-hungry guard, a sudden change in crew leadership, a night exposed to a raging storm—Kaladin finds hidden reserves of strength and puts forth the effort required to surmount it. And just as he leaves one setback in his wake, another appears right in front of him. Through it all, we’re treated to Kaladin’s stream of consciousness, including more than a few “all is lost moments” where he almost gives up. And yet, despite the stacked odds against him, Kaladin doggedly fights to succeed.
Raoden, on the other hand, brushes off his opposition with a wave of a hand. His accomplishments often occur off-page, or they’re conveyed in a quick line of dialogue. In essence, Sanderson tells us about Raoden’s victories, rather than showing us how he works to succeed. It’s hard to revel in a win that you hear about second-hand. For this reason, Raoden reads as a stalwart fantasy protagonist, always brave in the face of danger. Without clear insight into his wins or losses, it’s hard to cheer him on for any reason beyond feeling like you’re supposed to.
In Kaladin’s tale, Sanderson shows us every minor setback, minor victory, and shared triumph. When you get the whole picture, it’s easier to appreciate the results and feel included in the relief and joy of survival and success. Emerging victorious from a battle against hopelessness hits much harder when you’ve been privy to the horrors of that hopelessness from page one.
Plus, unlike the magical transformation that takes Elantrians, Kaladin’s hopelessness is fuelled by cold, hard reality. That makes his victories, though often pyrrhic, all the more impressive.
Sarene & Vin: New Worlds
Outside of Elantris’ walls, the city of Kae tumbles into political disarray. King Iadon’s pay-to-play nobility structure fosters tensions between houses. Laborers grow unhappy with their working conditions. And Sarene, whose marriage was meant to ally Arelon and Teod, finds herself married yet husband-less, lost in the political shuffle.
All the while, Sarene yearns to balance her political, strategic prowess with the desire to fall in love and experience a close, healthy relationship. But her new world contains friends and enemies in equal measure, and her quest to find her own identity is stunted by her need to react and adapt to an entirely new environment. Her battle is one of external forces, and she must carefully choose who to trust.
In Mistborn, Vin begins her journey as a nothing. She’s a street-dweller getting by on whatever scraps she can find, fighting off groups of stronger beggars with what little fight she has left. Suddenly, she’s thrust into a world of maniacal schemes and a near-impossible revolutionary plot.
Once her survival needs are met, Vin finds herself in an unfamiliar world. She’s a Mistborn, capable of incredible feats. She’s also taken on the role of a pseudo-noble, expected to attend balls and adopt a sense of decorum replete with rules and customs she’s only just learned. Faced with limitless possibilities, Vin must learn to trust and to be trusted. Sure, she doesn’t know the people around her. But Vin faces a much bigger problem: she doesn’t know herself.
Sarene’s arc in Elantris reads like a social deduction game or a complex puzzle. She’s up against external forces, carefully working out who can be trusted and sniffing out the dastardly plans of those who oppose her. We get bits and pieces of her internal struggle, but she’s overly occupied with the machinations of others, so it’s hard to sink our teeth into her personal growth. Readers don’t get a full picture of Sarene’s inner struggles because we’re busy watching her deal with external factors. Sarene does grow and change, but her transformation is harder to measure and fully appreciate compared to Vin’s arc, which is heavily focused on personal growth.
Vin’s story takes the interesting settings and challenges of Sarene’s arc—fish out of water, aristocratic culture, social graces and conventions, and political intrigue —and adds nuance by tying it to personal growth and self-knowledge.
Sarene’s story hits the familiar beats of an aristocrat trying to adapt to a foreign court. On the other hand, Mistborn thrusts a protagonist much less prepared for the expectations of high society into an ocean of political backstabbing. Alongside the obvious outward struggles Vin endures, she grapples internally with social anxiety, learning to trust others, gaining self-confidence, and grappling with the urge to disguise the parts of her personality she thinks others will dislike.
Mistborn gives us the best of both worlds, catalyzed by Vin’s 200-page long, Kelsier-led training montage. Part of the reason Vin’s arc resonates with me more than Sarene’s is that we see the changes take hold in real time. Vin soars through the mists with more confidence each time she experiences even a tiny personal epiphany. As she learns to trust the folks around her, she learns to have faith in herself. Her external struggles and subsequent growth parallel her mental and emotional issues and subsequent transformation. And while the culmination of Sarene’s arc reaches a fairy-tale ending that sparks a contented smile, Vin’s ultimate fate summons a wave of tears…some happy, some sad.
Hrathen & Sazed: Test Of Faith
Finally, we have the pious folk.
In Elantris, Hrathen is given a goal from on high. Jaddeth, his god, has tasked him with converting Arelon to Shu-Dereth… in three months. Hrathen’s opposition? An overeager lower-level priest, a public that doesn’t want to convert, a thick-skulled king, Sarene of Teod, and his own wavering faith.
As the Fjordell priest starts to weave his intricate web, his faith begins to unravel. Hrathen questions his orders, unsure if he should convert Arelon through violence should diplomatic and evangelical methods fail. Following numerous external blows to his faith, Hrathen chooses to abandon his god to stave off genocide.
Elsewhere in the Cosmere, another religious figure faces an internal battle of wavering faith. Sazed the Terrisman confronts truths that make him wary of his faith. After years of studying the various religions in Scadrial, the world of Mistborn, the revelations brought to light by The Well of Ascension send Sazed into a depressive spiral. Eager to resolve the discrepancies between his studies and the real-world events that contradict them, Sazed dives deeper into his research, hoping that he’ll find some truth amidst the madness.
With the Lord Ruler dead and Ruin roaming free, Sazed feels empty. He spends the vast majority of The Hero of Ages moping, unable to reconcile his life’s work with the nefarious goings-on in Luthadel and the surrounding area. Even as his comrades Vin, Elend, Spook, and others fight to free the planet from certain doom, Sazed questions whether anything he can do will make a difference.
Hrathen’s struggle manifests as a questioning of faith which is eventually resolved in an “Oh, he’s good now!” moment. But the revelations that lead to Hrathen’s change of heart take only a few pages of space in Elantris. His transformation, though seeded throughout the story, has little room to take hold and develop in his mind. The sudden change of allegiance feels like a narrative shortcut because we aren’t treated to much of Hrathen’s inner dialogue as he shifts his thinking.
Sazed’s conflict, on the other hand, is explored in detail. He battles his preconceived notions. His vast knowledge turns on him—once, it was a boon. Now, it’s a burden. Shouldering the understanding of his world’s religions while simultaneously unable to believe in any of them nearly tears Sazed apart. This sends him into a spiral of depression and despair, and none of his loved ones can think of a way to rectify it. Sazed’s crisis of faith takes shape in the world and represents a substantial obstacle for his comrades to overcome. Instead of a shoehorned plot point, Sazed’s internal torment feels like a natural result of the events of the first Mistborn trilogy and another considerable problem to be solved before the protagonists can hope to save their dying world.
Here, we have two religious experts forced to struggle with inconsistencies, questions, and doubts. Hrathen’s uncertainty is thrust upon him by external forces working toward their own goals. Sazed’s uncertainty stems from, well, certainty. He has studied every religion known in Mistborn’s world, and none of them fit the cruel mold created by the catastrophic events destroying his home.
In contrast, Hrathen must grapple with the inherent violence of his religion while Sazed deals with the terror that ravages his concept of any religion. It’s a slippery but essential distinction. Hrathen is a religious devotee, while Sazed is a conduit for all religious ideals. Hrathen’s journey takes shape as an intense personal transformation, while Sazed’s crisis puts him and his entire world at risk.
A Welcome to The Cosmere
Sanderson started everything off with Elantris, a tale of learning one’s identity, adapting in the face of change, and questioning one’s faith. He introduced us to Raoden, Sarene, and Hrathen, weaving their stories together in the twilight of a crumbling kingdom. To this day, Elantris stands out as an excellent read. As much as it has to offer readers, though, I find that I appreciate the novel most for its role in the Sanderson pantheon as a herald of sorts, a harbinger of everything that was to come: The author’s debut laid the groundwork for even better, bigger, more complex stories. Mistborn and The Stormlight Archive take the themes of Elantris and improve on them, treating readers to complex, full-fledged character arcs rarely matched in the field of fantasy.
Cole Rush writes words. A lot of them. For the most part, you can find those words at The Quill To Live or on Twitter @ColeRush1. He voraciously reads epic fantasy and science-fiction, seeking out stories of gargantuan proportions and devouring them with a bookwormish fervor. His favorite books are: The Divine Cities Series by Robert Jackson Bennett, The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, and The House In The Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune.