The Chronicles of Elantra – Series Review
I have gotten a little behind in my reading of late – an impressive feat as I have been reading continuously as a means of procrastinating other activities. I fear tonight I am not going to reach my word count for the Nanowrimo competition (writing a book in a month). However, I digress. My goal tonight is to comment on a series of books I have been reading: The Chronicles of Elantra by Michelle Sagara.
I am always surprised to find how completely absorbed in a long running series I have become. In fact, I actually own every book to date in the series. With nine books have been written about the adventures of Kaylin Neya in the city of Elantra, this is a feat I think is rather impressive. Though, I suppose if I were to peruse my book shelf, it would bear witness to the fact I have read and own several other series (Harry Potter, Green Rider, and others). In the Chronicles of Elantra, I am have been rereading the entire series – all eight previous stories – before I delve into the newest offering of book nine.
So, what are these books? Well, they tell the story of Kaylin Neya, a private in the Hawks (city police – investigative branch). She has been marked by magic and thus inadvertently finds herself the centre of world defining change. Each book is written as an episode while simultaneously following an overall arc. There is a flavour of a TV series in the way the books are written. Not that each story reads like a TV episode – I have read books like that and they are generally poorly written. Now, Sagara is an author and her stories are well crafted and appropriate to the pages. But there is a lightness, or sense of whimsy, that is more reminiscent of TV than epic high fantasy stories (such as Tolkien).
The world of Elantra is definitely fantasy. It is a nice mix of almost modern fantasy and the fantastical world building. What does that mean? Well, the structure and morals of the society feel modern. Despite the lack of gun powder or nanotechnology or even cars the world feels more modern than medieval. Women are not shunted away and protected by men. They are not confined to marriage and childbearing – at least not at the low level of society the stories centre around. While the mode of rapid transportation his horse and carriage, and stew has been noted on several occasions, the method of dress favours the more modern development of pants for all both men and women. The discussion of paperwork and pay sheets also feels considerably more modern. Whether this is the author’s intent, I could not say. There are elements of the medieval and the reader’s perspective is highly skewed by the unusual main character.
As for the fantasy side, the most obvious element that readers will mark is the inclusion of dragons. Dragons are just one of the races present in Elantra. The dragons not only rule the empire, they are capable of breathing fire and appearing human in form. They are also immortal. The other races include: Humans, Aerians (humans with wings and the ability to use them for flight), Tha’alani (mostly human with antennae and telepathy), Leontines (humanoid lions) and Barrani (pseudo-elves as they are perfect in appearance, arrogant in manner and immortal).
Generally I am not a fan of multiple races – they always seem a bit silly in print. However, Sagara pulls this off with ease. Perhaps it has something to do with the number or races present. Or the author’s ability to give each race a clear, well-defined place in the overall society structure. They do appear integrated. All the races all have their own cultural history and thus personalities. But while physical differences are clearly described, I find the cultural differences more interesting.
The Tha’alani are interesting in their nearly hive mind and ability to read the thoughts and emotions of others with their antennae. I found in interesting the way the Tha’alani have a very open culture without secrets that humans hold so close. They appear to be a very peace loving, easy going society. Yet, even these harmless people have teeth and they have a history of familiar violence. It gives them a complexity and richness that makes them seem alive.
Each race allows the author to tackle some different societal ideas. The Leontines have multiple wives. Yet, it is the wives that run the home. They have to get along well together if their family structure is going to work. While not much time is spent dwelling on this different relationship design, what is show, is done well.
It is also helpful there is no sense of forbidden love between individuals of different races. I don’t know how this could possibly work anatomically. So, I am grateful that in many ways race is down played. While the Barrani hold contempt for Humans, it is true they turn their noses down on all mortal races. At the same time the dragons are considered their greatest enemy.
Because this is fantasy there is magic present in the world. It is both common and powerful in many ways and sparse and irrelevant in others. I
guess what I am trying to say is that the magic is integrated into the world. It doesn’t feel like some glaring addition thrown on last minute just to turn a story into a fantasy tale. Nor does it seem that the magic is present to extract the lead characters from trouble. This might have more to do with magic causing the trouble.
There is a sense of integration of magic into the world. Door wards are common. The use of mirrors as communication devices I am particularly fond. Memory crystals (audio-visual recording devices) are also an interesting addition. There are a few instances of big magic, like exploding doors. But even the bigger magics, the shape of towers are done in such a way to seem reasonable.
Not to suggest there are not flaws with the stories. Rereading all the books at once reminds me of one of the great challenges faced by authors of series. How do you sum up the previous portion of the story without it appearing like an information dump? While Sagara might try to spread out some of the information I generally find the first couple chapters to be less griping as she tries to explain what has come before. Really, this is a waste of time. Either the reader has been following your work since book one or they were dumb for jumping into the middle at book. Don’t bother trying to catch them up. If the reader wants a better idea of what is happening, then it is their responsibility to go back and read from the beginning. Otherwise, you are just padding your book with information I already know.
Still, if it wasn’t already clear. I really like this series. I am eagerly looking forward to what the new book has to offer – as soon as I finish rereading books 7 & 8!