Once upon a time, there was a little girl who was growing up in a slum inside, but separate from, the city of Elantra. But that was a long time ago, and now that little girl is a young woman now, living in the city itself, working as one of its guards. But her past still haunts her in many ways, for she has a special power, coveted by many, including the ruler of the slum of her birth, and by a being living in the lost heart of the city…
Last week, I stated that I prefered the world-building of Michelle Sagara to that of Brandon Sanderson. I would like to clarify: Sanderson is definitely the most original writer of the two, or rather, his worlds are more original than the one presented in the Chronicles of Elantra. (I have read another series by Michelle, The Sun Sword, in which the world is more original. A good series, but not today’s focus.) But despite being somewhat more common, albeit with a few good twists, I like the Elantra books for one specific reason: the world-building, from the perspective of the reader, is the most organic possible.
I’m having trouble explaining what I mean, so let me put it this way. Kaylin Neya, our heroine and POV for (almost) the whole series, is a Hawk — a member of the investigative branch of the city of Elantra. She is the youngest member ever, and although she received a compulsory education before she joined (sort of, the timing is a little odd, for reasons) she put absolutely zero effort into learning anything she did not consider essential. This has come back to bite her, almost literally, and as she keeps encountering things, races, and magics that she never anticipated, those around her keep having to explain things she should have already known.
And that is the trick, right there: the reader needs to know about elements of the world, and so Kaylin needs to have them explained as well. The part I think is quite well done is that she needs the explanations, and assumptions she makes are often wrong in illuminating ways. The world therefore takes shape in the reader’s mind quite naturally, as Kaylin gradually begins to understand her world as an adult rather than a child. It is world-building directly wedded to the narrative, and I enjoy it a lot.
As for the story itself, I enjoy it for a lot of reasons. Not necessarily because it is too original; I’ve seen the whole “city guard of a fantasy city” done before, most notably by Terry Pratchett and Simon R. Green. The city is ruled by immortal dragons, or rather one dragon in particular, and said rule is continually tested by the other immortal race, the
elves Barrani. (I’m not kidding about that, either, the Barrani are elves right down to the ends of their pointy ears. Violent little bastards, too.) The Tha’alani are a bit more unique, being a race of telepaths, but the Leontine are almost standard beastmen, and the Aerians are birdmen.
Now, as the story continues, each of these races gets a bit more fleshing out, and interesting details emerge. But to begin with, it is a somewhat simple setting. And that’s ok. Things progress at a good pace, explanations make sense, and the narrative never spares Kaylin’s dignity. Which is fun.
(By the way, on a completely unrelated side note: never read a review of work you are reviewing while you are reviewing it. You will nod along with points you agree with, raise an eyebrow at points you don’t, and when you go back to your own review you will have forgotten entirely what you were talking about. Be warned.)
One last thing I can talk about, without heading too deeply into Spoiler Forest. In a way, the books are very episodic, often spotlighting a single race, especially in the beginning. But status quo is not god, and anything that happens to change the city’s situation is never retconned away for the next book. In fact, I can think of at least three occasions where coping with the results of the ending of a previous book is the main plot of the next book. It is an interesting balance to strike, and I think Sagara does a good job of it.
By the way, if you are wondering why I’m not talking about Kaylin’s unique magic, it is because it is made up of 110% Compleat Spoilers, and I don’t want to go there. But it ends up compelling quite a bit of the plot, if only because it means the immortal races cannot safely ignore her, and so she ends up interacting with Dragons and
elves Barrani quite a bit more than she is really comfortable with. And having pushed spoiler-dom as far as I feel comfortable with, onward.
…Ok, so there is one other thing. The books were, at least initially, printed under the Luna imprint, which concerns itself with — ahem — “romantic fantasy.” This might breed certain expectations in you; please set those expectations aside. If this is a romance (and, in a way, it is) it is a romance in the long form, building over time, rather than dropping the heroine in bed with an appropriate partner. (…Am I being too harsh here?) Actually, there is a parallel to be made between Kaylin’s relationships, and the progress of the setting as a whole…but I find myself losing concentration. Better wrap this up.
So yes, I recommend this series. Should you chose to read it, I advise you to at least read the first three books; the first book contains a good deal of what my friends at TVTropes would call “early installment weirdness,” but Michelle really hits her stride by book three. Or if you prefer something a bit more epic in scale, The Sun Sword series (written under the name Michelle Sagara West) is also extraordinarily good, in ways that would require another entry to fully appreciate. It is a very different beast than Elantra, at the very least.
Well. That was fun. I should thank the book spirit for bringing this series up, next time she…it…shows up. Enough digression, though, what’s next on my list…?
So yeah. While I wouldn’t exactly call the series I’ve reviewed so far ‘light and fluffy’, there are certain positive overtones to all three that are quite at odds with the tone of A Game of Thrones, which is of course my ongoing project. A suspicious reader might think that I only like this type of series, and hate anything slightly grimdark. To a certain extent, you might be right.
And to a certain extent, oh so very, very, wrong…