Close Reading 7 of 12 (Point of View Shifts and Pacing in Sanderson’s Elantris)

 

Elantris, the first novel of Brandon Sanderson, is an epic fantasy that employs multiple points of view in telling the story. The novel opens from the perspective of Prince Raoden who has just been transformed by the Shaod and is promptly thrown into the fallen city of Elantris. The second point of view follows Sarene, Raoden’s unsuspecting fiancée as she lands in the city Kae to find her betrothed “dead” and her married to him by contract. The third primary point of view character is Hrathen, a scheming Derethi priest sent to Kae to convert its citizens. These three characters start the story with very different plots, which slowly converge into one another over the course of the 200,000-word novel. Sanderson’s use of these varying points of view directly impact the pace of the novel, at first used to rehash prior action from another character’s perspective and to fill in additional detail to scenes the reader already knows the outcome resulting in a slower pace and eventually switching quickly between perspectives as the action occurs, keeping the pace brisk, each technique emphasizing the action in its own way.

In the beginning of the story, the perspective shifts have zero overlap between the characters, and the story moves briskly forward as three separate plots. As Sanderson begins to tie the stories of Raoden, Sarene, and Hrathen together, however, he interjects an increasing amount of overlap in the actions that occur in their varying perspectives, repeating actions from multiple perspectives. These perspective shifts are a tool that guides the pace of the story, slowing it down where the author feels additional details needs to be shared.

One instance of this overlap occurs where Hrathen poisons himself to simulate the curse of the Shaod and is thrown into Elantris as a ruse to make the people of Kae believe that his god has cured him when the poison inevitably wears off. Sanderson layers and extends the brief time that Hrathen spends in Elantris by having each of the other characters notice and comment on both his affliction and his cure.

            “My lord Spirit!” called an approaching voice.
Raoden raised an eyebrow, closing the tome.
“My lord,” Dashe said as he rushed through the door. The tall Elantrian looked more confused than worried.
“What is it, Dashe?” Raoden asked.
“It’s the gyorn, my lord,” Dashe said, eyes alight with excitement. “He’s been healed.”

Sanderson, Elantris, page 333.

The first that the reader learns that Hrathen has been “healed” is in Raoden’s point of view, when he learns about it from a fellow Elantrian. Sanderson might have chosen then to switch to Hrathen’s point of view to learn the full story, but he does now. He next switches to Sarene’s point of view, where the reader learns that Hrathen has been freed from Elantris and is now looked upon by the citizens of Kae as a miracle.

            “What in the name of Domi is that?” Roial asked.
Their carriage drew closer, allowing Sarene to make out a tall form at the center of the crowd.
Sarene grew numb. “But … that’s impossible!”
“What?” Roial asked, squinting.
“It’s Hrathen,” Sarene said, her eyes wide, “He’s left Elantris!” Then she realized something else. The gyorn’s face was unspotted. Flesh-colored.
“Merciful Domi—he’s been healed!”

Sanderson, Elantris, page 340.

It is only after the reader has learned the final outcome from both Raoden and Sarene that Sanderson goes back to Hrathen’s perspective and gives a break down of what happened. Sanderson manages to make a five day stay in Elantris seem much more monumental than the action would otherwise indicate by using perspective shifts to spread the news of the result before the result is ever directly addressed. This slows down the pace of this five-day period to emphasize the importance of it.

Alternatively, as the story progresses, Sanderson uses quick perspective changes to speed up the pace of the story, allowing actions to unfurl quickly and without multiple retellings. He also varies the length of his perspective scenes such that a character might only get a short paragraph before the perspective changes again and the action moves forward from another perspective. One example of this occurs when Sarene realizes that an annoying foreigner is really Raoden in disguise.

That was it. Sarene knew that faith somewhere—that pure belief in the basic goodness of all men. And when she suddenly realized where she had seen it before, she couldn’t stop herself from jumping up and yelping in surpise.

***

Raoden cringed, immediately recognizing his mistake. He had let go of Kaloo too quickly, allowing too much of his true self to show. The others hadn’t noticed the change, but Sarene—dear suspicious Sarene—hadn’t been so lax.

Sanderson, Elantris, page 421.

The above passage emphasizes a connection between two characters in the middle of an action sequence by quickly shifting from one perspective to the other and then back again. Again, Sanderson uses perspective change as an emphasis in Elantris, this time, keeping the action moving forward quickly rather than slowing it down and prolonging the time. The momentum is retained because the reader immediately knows Raoden’s response to Sarene’s realization. The interjection of his point of view into the flow of the chapter that is otherwise entirely from her perspective prevents Sanderson from having to retrace the steps or use dialog to understand Raoden’s thoughts at that moment. It adds more tension and action to a sequence that otherwise was heavy with Sarene’s introspection and dialog of a political nature.

Elantris is has its strengths and weaknesses, but Sanderson uses perspective and change of perspective to not only draw three disparate plots together into one but to alter the pace of the story in ways that reflect his perceived importance of the events unfolding rather than just what might otherwise be a chronological movement of time. This allows him to place subtle importance on events and draw the reader along at his chosen pace.

Featured Image: Kiyomizadera Temple in Kyoto, Japan, 2008.

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