The Emperor's Soul

To create the ultimate forgery, what you need is, unsurprisingly, is the ultimate forger. And when the forgery is of the arcane variety, to forge and affix a stricken emperor’s very soul, who better than someone capable of magically forging items to the most exacting detail?

Fortunately for those who wish to keep the Emperor going. they happen to have such a forger in their prison. It may not be fortunate for Shai, however, as Court politics and factions might make this ultimate act of forgery her last…if she can even complete it successfully.

The Emperor’s Soul, in a departure from his doorstopper tendencies, is a modestly sized novella from Brandon Sanderson.

The Emperor’s Soul is the story of the aforementioned forger Shai. While forging objects as a sort of glamour to make them into something else is an accepted form of magic, her additional ability and talent of forging is something normally considered abomination or a crime–forging a soul, imprinting a new nature and spirit onto a person. And it is this abomination of a skill and ability that is needed in the  bid to heal the Emperor. To add to the pressure, the Emperor cannot remain in seclusion forever, and so the task must be done in 100 days, no more. Also, if his state is discovered, his  dynasty will fall, with consequences for faction and Empire alike. And, of course, for Shai.

The strengths of the novella first are ones that readers of Sanderson will come to expect: worldbuilding and magic. I was fascinated by the Empire, even though we see so little of it and get that through a very narrow and idiosyncratic lens.  It might be set in the same world as his standalone debut, Elantris, but the magic system of forging is new, layered, different, detailed and intriguing.  Fans of Sanderson’s work are of course not surprised, as this is a hallmark of his work.

The other strengths of the novella are that it is indeed brief, and short, and concentrated. With almost no exception, the point of view, focus and attention are on Shai, and remain there. It gives a hitherto unusual look at a Sanderson world, magic system and character interactions not seen in his novels.  The novella, in contrast to Sanderson’s other work with epic journeys, landscapes, and widescreen feel, is very nearly a one-act play.

The main weakness to the novella.,though, is the flip side of its strength: its concise nature often works against it as much as working with it. The short form is clearly not Sanderson’s comfort zone, and it often shows. Time and again, it’s clear that things would come across better or clearer if he had the freedom and nerve to take this from a novella up to a (short) novel. Sometimes things are a bit too rushed, in other places I wanted more detail and could see it lurking there, waiting to be unleashed.  There is also a Chekov’s Gun of a choice for Shai, that doesn’t, in my opinion, fire properly.

Still, The Emperor’s Soul, overall. is  a good and short if rather atypical introduction to Sanderson’s work. The virtues and stylistic renderings of Sanderson’s work are here for those who have wanted to try his work, but have blanched sinking the money and time into The Way of Kings or Mistborn. Try The Emperor’s Soul, and see if Sanderson’s work speaks to you.  As for those who are already fans of his work, yes, this is barely an appetizer by Sanderson’s high page count standards. You will like this anyway and need little further encouragement from me.

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One Response to Book Review: The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson

  1. Nice to see you review this one Paul. I’m with you all the way on the strengths. I think you hit on them squarely and they are present in abundance despite the brevity of the story. Each time I pick up a new Sanderson story I excited about what the magic will be and how it will work. There is a similarity present in all the stories and yet enough of a difference that it is a surprise each time.

    I personally didn’t see the weaknesses that you did. I’m not saying they aren’t there, I trust your judgment. They just didn’t register on my first reading or when I read it aloud a month later to my wife (who doesn’t read this kind of fiction and loved it). I very much prefer shorter fiction (in comparison to his usual door stoppers) and I didn’t mind the concise nature of the narrative.

    I think the thing I liked best about the story as a whole is that I would be thrilled to see Shai crop up again in another story but at the same time I would be quite satisfied if I never did again because I was happy with how everything wrapped up, if that makes sense.

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