Elantris and the Tsundoku Condition

elantris.jpg

I first heard Brandon Sanderson’s name when he was hired to complete Robert Jordan’s mammoth The Wheel of Time fantasy series after Mr. Jordan passed away in 2007 — gee, has it been 11 years already? The Wheel of Time was a favorite series of a few friends of mine, but I never tackled it and so I missed my first potential exposure to Sanderson’s talent. I then started seeing Sanderson’s name mentioned in discussion forums like Shelfari and Goodreads and hearing about him on bookcentric podcasts like Sword & Laser. Then some commentators I trust began shouting his name from the mountaintops after Sanderson’s The Way of Kings was released. I started doing something weird. I bought The Way of Kings, the first book of a series called The Stormlight Archive, but I was not able to read it yet. Then book two of The Stormlight Archive, Words of Radiance — what a beautiful title — was released and I bought that, still having not read The Way of Kings. Then the third title, Oathbreaker, hit store shelves and I exchanged my paycheck for it. Here is the truly bizarre aspect of this entire situation: I still have not read any of them. Is it not madness to buy the second and third volumes of a series when one has not yet read the first? There is a Japanese term for this practice of continuing to buy books but not reading them: 積ん読 or tsundoku. Here is an applicable quote attributed to American author Alfred Edward Newton:

Even when reading is impossible, the presence of books acquired produces such an ecstasy that the buying of more books than one can read is nothing less than the soul reaching towards infinity … we cherish books even if unread, their mere presence exudes comfort, their ready access reassurance.

Right? If you are reading this, you are probably an avid reader like me and nodded in agreement while reading that quote. Welcome, brethren. So here I was with this condition I now know is called tsundoku and a heap of unread Brandon Sanderson novels. Three beautiful hardcover volumes comprised of three thousand three hundred forty two pages. It is intimidating. Then a colleague gave me a copy of Elantris, Brandon Sanderson’s debut novel. Unlike much of Sanderson’s later work, Elantris is a single story encased in a single volume. Being the man’s debut novel, I decided this was the best place to begin exploring his work and so on a warm, midsummer night, I entered the gates of Elantris. Holy cow, smoke, and Toledo, y’all. I enjoyed this story so much!

When the beloved Prince Raoden of Arelon wakes up one morning to discover he has been afflicted with a magical disease, his father the king secretly exiles him to the nearby walled city of Elantris. Once a majestic and beautiful city inhabited by people with godlike powers, Elantris is now a festering prison populated by the rotting unfortunates slung low by the disease known as the Shaod. Raoden must now fight the debilitating effects of his disease as he attempts to investigate the cause of the fall of Elantris with the hope of restoring the city to its former glory and healing himself and the hundreds of others with his condition. The Shaod brings madness quickly though so Raoden has little time before he is lost forever. Outside the walls, Teoish princess Sarene arrives in the kingdom to discover the man she was to marry has mysteriously died. She suspects foul play and conspiracy and begins an investigation to discover what really happened to her betrothed. As she works, he allies herself with a group of nobles with designs to overthrow the corrupt king of Arelon and becomes embroiled in a dangerous political coup just as the external forces of neighboring Fjordell threaten to assault Arelon. High Priest Hrathen of Fjordell has seen what war does to a kingdom his nation means to subjugate and so has just ninety days to peacefully convert the people of Arelon to his nation’s religion before the powerful armies of Fjordell arrive to bring destruction and death to the unfaithful.

All three primary characters are so enjoyable that I found myself conflicted when a chapter switched perspective from one character to another. I wanted to remain with each of them and continue exploring their story and their world, but I was also excited to learn more about the other two characters. This inspired me to read deeply and quickly as I thirsted for more information about each character. Even Hrathen, who is supposed to be villain, is so deserving of empathy that I found myself struggling to hate him as he executed his plans to bring about the conquest of the kingdom of Arelon. Prince Raoden is exactly the kind of leader I wish to be: decisive, intelligent, earnest, clever, empathetic. I loved his chapters and rooted so strongly for him. Sarene is a wonderful character, a strong female protagonist in a patriarchal society, fighting for truth and for civil rights in a kingdom foreign to her.

If you enjoy fantasy novels that are not just all about sword fights, stories that include intrigue and clever magic systems, read Elantris. If you have not read a Brandon Sanderson novel yet, this one will make you a fan and is an excellent example of his talent as a storyteller. I have a lot of Sanderson still on my shelf and the tsundoku still rages, but reading Elantris is a positive first step toward controlling it. One page at a time.

The Companions

20170611_221403.png

Twice in my life, I have had the honor of performing the role of Dungeon Master for my circle of gaming friends and both times I have used the Forgotten Realms campaign setting designed by Ed Greenwood. It is a rich, fully realized world that allows me to concentrate on the collaborative interactive story my friends and I are creating and not worry so much about building the world itself. I have infinite respect for those who can create their own world, e.g. Matthew Mercer of the Geek & Sundry show Critical Role, but it is not for me. To help me fill my knowledge of the world I am using for my games, I read a lot of novels set in the Forgotten Realms and there are a ton of titles from which to choose. All of the books bearing the Forgotten Realms name are canon and while many fans read them for the pure joy of it, I also read them as source material.

One of the most voluminous series available --we are talking 30+ titles as of this writing-- is R.A. Salvatore's epic saga of the drow with a heart, Drizzt Do'Urden. It is a series I never picked up because by the time I discovered Salvatore, the mountain of titles available in the series was so intimidating that I had no chance of succeeding a Will saving throw. In 2013, Wizards of the Coast, the parent company of the Dungeons & Dragons product line, released the first book of a new series that would set up the next evolution of their Forgotten Realms setting, a world-shattering event called The Sundering. To explain this event, six authors were commissioned to write six novels, each one telling the story of one of the six stanzas of The Prophecy. Salvatore lead off with The Companions and I was concerned because I had not read any of his previous novels and I knew that the titular companions were those of Salvatore's Drizzt. I worried that the history of the characters across the dozens of preceding books would make The Companions difficult to follow or relate to.

I am pleased to say my concerns were alleviated. While there are several references to the events of other novels in the Drizzt series, Salvatore does a fine job of providing enough context that I, as a new reader of his work, did not feel lost. I would even go so far as to say the references piqued my interest enough to want to seek out those older stories. As the novel opens, the companions are dead and in the Forgotten Realms's version of Purgatory. They have the opportunity to choose to pass through to the Paradise of their chosen deity or return to the mortal world in infant bodies. Those who chose to inhabit mortal bodies again make a pact to meet at a location called Kelvin's Cairn on the night of spring equinox of their twenty-first year. They each experience rebirth, becoming infants born to unfamiliar parents, but with all of the knowledge and experience and memories from their previous lives. How many of us have wished we could live life again knowing what we know now? If only.

Each of the titular Companions relives life, battling through childhood and adolescence again, but with adult sensibilities and experience, en route to their preordained meeting. They inhabit the weak and ineffective bodies of children, not the strong adult bodies to which they are accustomed. They may have been granted a second chance, but they are still mortal. How many of them will survive their first twenty-one years again with the forces of evil still to content with? I thoroughly enjoyed finding out. The story is exciting, the characters are interesting, and I had a great time following them on their respective journeys, fantasizing about how I might handle the opportunity to relive life with my current mind and memory fully intact. Throughout the novel, I found myself caring deeply for each of the characters, cheering for them to succeed and fearing their failure.

Fans of Salvatore's series will not be disappointed in The Companions unless they only like Drizzt (he makes a cameo appearance but is absent for most of the story) and for readers new to his work, this is a great place to start. I may jump back to the inaugural Drizzt novel and experience the entire saga from the beginning. It will be a steep mountain to climb, but having experienced The Companions, at least I can be quite certain I will enjoy the hike. But first, there are five more novels in The Sundering series, each of which sits on the bookshelf above my writing desk, daring me to take the next step.