This was really difficult to get into. Nice starting premise, nice magic system, but cardboard characters, unbelievable plot, clunky writing style and ponderous humour. And nothing happens for chapter after chapter, apart from people milling about having things explained to them. And the names! Raoden, Reod, Shaod, Heod, Seon, Iadon, Hrathen, Kiin, Telrii... what was the author thinking? Well, typical debut book, I suppose.
There are three main characters with their own plots threads. Raoden, the king's son, is banished to the once glorious city of Elantris, and the world is told he is dead. Sarene, his newly-arrived betrothed, now widow, has to make sense of the political machinations of court. Hrathen, a priest, has the task of converting the entire kingdom to his religion. Hrathen is the only one with any real complexity to him.
The world-building is mostly perfunctory. Elantris itself and its one remaining satellite town of Kae are the focus of all the action. They are reasonably well described, and various other parts of the world are merely mentioned in passing. Each has its own culture, but somehow they never really come alive. There are comments about styles of dress and customs, but these are not very convincing. There are various different religions which are well differentiated (they have to be, since Hrathen's brand is significant to the plot) but I wasn't very sold on the idea that one branch is more based on 'truth' than the others. How do you even distinguish truth in an entirely faith-based system?
The world is disappointingly patriarchal. Considering that until ten years ago the culture revolved around Elantris, which was far more egalitarian, how did women become so side-lined, to the point that intelligent women were forced to hide behind their embroidery? And while I appreciate the author's attempt to introduce a feisty, spirited, self-willed (ie modern) woman in Sarene, perhaps someone should tell him that 'assertive' is not the same as bossy. Nor is it such a bad thing to be assertive, even in a patriarchal society, particularly within the nobility. A man may not want an argumentative wife, but even if he banishes her to the domestic sphere, she still has a castle full of servants to organise, not a job for the timid. Nor do I believe for one moment that Sarene would be unable to find herself a husband, however tall or bossy she might be. King's daughters get married for political reasons, and there would have been princes and dukes queued up round the block, even if she looked like the back end of a carthorse. And her much-vaunted intelligence was not greatly in evidence, either. Half her schemes ended in near-disaster, with the feisty heroine having to be rescued by the blokes.
But the real problem with this book lies in the plotting. Everything the characters are required to do depends on everyone around them being mindless and stupid. Elantris lost its magic and power ten years ago, yet no one had thought of any of the ideas Raoden comes up with? No one had looked into the Aons (magic symbols) before, not even the surviving original Elantrians, who (you would have thought) might have had some inkling of what had gone wrong, or at least known where to look to find the answer? Yet Raoden works it out in a matter of weeks. And then there's Sarene, who arrives from a distant kingdom and starts making pushy suggestions to the nobles, and they all say: stone me, that's a good idea, never thought of that. Really? Even the most plausible plot thread, Hrathen's attempt to convert the locals, depends on crowds who can be swayed in unison (very 'Life of Brian': "We are all individuals"). At least the nobles are a bit more independent, even if most of them are also corrupt.
Given all this, and the largely turgid writing style, where everything was explained by way of lengthy and confusing dialogue, I was finding it really hard to get through. But about half way through, things start to pick up. The three plot threads become intertwined, and suddenly things get very unpredictable, with some nice twists and turns right to the end (thank goodness, since the ending was obvious virtually from page 1). Some of it was a bit contrived, but never mind. And even the inevitable romance feels like an organic part of the story, not something squeezed into a corner to be produced with a flourish at the last moment.
The real star of the show, however, is the magic system - a way of 'writing' symbols which harnesses some natural power. This is beautifully developed over the course of the book, and the way it is revealed to be interwoven with the culture and even the country itself is very clever. I liked the mysterious Seon beings, too. So despite all the flaws, and the complete lack of emotional engagement with any of the characters, this merits a good three stars.