As the middle section of a novel, it was mostly concerned with expanding backstory and a few false starts at the climax. (Intentional false starts….more of a meta note) The three main thesis Sanderson seemed to have for this part of the book were:
1. Intellectual faith vs emotional faith – This mostly concerned the Doraki priest. (I’m listening to the audiobook so I’m going to go with the spelling of Hrathin). Sanderson continued to make Hrathin’s plot much more complicated than a simplistic good and evil plot. Yes, he’s part of an empire that sees itself as under a godly mandate and yes he must convert the city or they’ll be destroyed by the empire, but while the religion is being forced upon these people, he’s not an evil person. In fact, I wonder if Sanderson, who I found out via the Cosmere reddit is a member of the LDS, didn’t see some comparison to the Prophet Jonah. If you weren’t raised religious or didn’t pay much attention to the actual Bible you probably only know him as the guy who was in a whale’s stomach (like Gepetto in Disney’s Pinocchio). But the story in the Bible has God telling him that he needs to convert the city of Ninevah or else God’s going to destroy them. (Sound familiar?) Of course, things diverge there because Jonah hated the Ninevans and wanted them to die so he skipped out on his deal – hence the whole whale thing. In Hrathin’s case, he is a more militant follower so he does not skorn the idea. In fact, he is haunted by the massacre that followed his previous success at city conversion. While modern humans in non-theocratic countries view it as bad that he wants to force-convert the citizens, he really is trying to save the lives of an entire city. But getting back to plot point in this book – he struggles with the fact that his relationship to his religion is purely intellectual. His intellect makes him a very entertaining sparring partner with Serene, but it means he cannot compete with Deloth over followers. He can logically get you to see his point, but most people need that emotional connection to join a religion. Of course, the emotional followers are the fanatics and this is causing a bigger and bigger problem for him.
2. The value of a human is in having a task – In Prince Rayodin’s plot we end up in the puritanical philosophical point that a human needs a task to have humanity. I would say that some evidence in this being true is the death rate of seniors who retire from working and die without a purpose. At least that’s the current psychology theory behind it once you control for other reasons old people die. What I love about this plot point is that it puts the Prince in a tough spot when Serene intrudes upon his project with handouts. Of course, one way of reading this plot might see this as an indictment against government support. Not sure if Sanderson meant it that way, because it does work beautifully plot-wise given the situation he put Prince Rayodin in. Still, it’s hard to miss that those getting government handouts stop working and just sit there waiting for their next handout. Real life is much more complicated than that and, at least in the USA, we have designed out cutoffs to be step functions rather than a slope such that someone could be worse off with a better job. Anyway, USA politics aside, I do like the way Sanderson is tackling the Elantrian plotlines. I’m curious to see where he goes from here and whether he’s going for a happy, sad, or realistic ending.
3. Earning respect from others vs earning relationships – Serene’s plot has been a pretty interesting one. Sanderson’s given us a strong woman who can accomplish much. Plotwise Sanderson does a good job giving her setbacks that are mostly a direct cause of her overplaying her hand rather than simply because she’s a woman in a fantasy world. As I mentioned in my review for book 1 – in Elantris Sanderson has more of a modern vibe within a fantasy world – AI/Skype in the form of Saiyans, blended families, people who go to university, a society that seems to accept different races without too much overt racism, Hrathin’s country aside – a tolerance for different religions. So while women aren’t co-equal with men, they’re not fighting against outright oppression. So my reading of Serene’s plot here is not so much that she’s being penalized for being manly, but rather that she’s caught in a viscous cycle. Having been spurned by some men who are scared of strong women, she has made choices about the way she acts that alienate people. Her intelligence has made her so sure of herself that she comes off as standoffish. And that’s not something that’s limited to one gender or the other. So I do like when mentors take her aside – they don’t tell her to be more womanly – they just tell her to be more empathetic. She has people’s intellectual loyalty – she needs their compassionate loyalty. And I guess in that way, it’s pretty neat that she mirrors her antagonist, Hrathin. They’re both people who have let their minds get in the way of their friends. Something I know many other real-world intelligent people have struggled with.
A solid middle section that keeps the plot going and enriches the story. Because it’s originally part of one book, it has better pacing than most middle books in a trilogy since those books often seem to be stalling for time.