The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson
The Emperor’s Soul is the last work of Brandon Sanderson set in the Cosmere which I had yet to read, and with the finishing of this novella I am now caught up. I’ve been reading Sanderson for a few months now and it’s been an incredibly fun ride; I’m sad to be forced to take a break (I’m not counting the imminent A Memory of Light, because although Sanderson may be writing it I’ll always consider it Robert Jordan’s story). Thankfully, The Emperor’s Soul is an absolutely wonderful way to round off my Sanderson experience, standing as one of the most complete and charming novellas I have ever read.
The Emperor’s Soul is set on Sel, the planet upon which Sanderson’s first published novel, Elantris, was set. The ‘Rose Empire’ within which The Emperor’s Soul is set in incredibly far from Arelon, the setting of Elantris, with the only indications of this shared setting coming from oblique references to lands which played a background role in Elantris, such as Jindo and Svorden. Therefore, this novel is completely readable without having read any other Cosmere novels, even Elantris. We don’t see much of the Rose Empire, mostly just the palace of the titular Emperor, in fact, mostly within one room of that palace. It’s therefore rather impressive how much detail Sanderson manages to cram into this rather short novella, even though world building isn’t really the priority here. I really hope that we see more of Sel, and I hope that Sanderson’s planned sequels to Elantris incorporate the Rose Empire somehow, or even have a role played by some new and interesting lands referred to in The Emperor’s Soul. It wouldn’t be a Brandon Sanderson novel without an interesting new magic system; the magic of The Emperor’s Soul is known as ‘Forgery.’ Similar in some ways to the AonDor symbol based magic of Elantris, Forgery is the act of rewriting an objects past to change its attributes in the present through the crafting of stamps. The magic is based upon plausibility; if too much is changed the Forgery will fail, so an intimate knowledge of an object’s history is needed to rewrite its past. Like all the best magic systems, there are clearly defined limits to what it can and can’t do. Forgery, similarly to the BioChromatic breath of Warbreaker, is considered to be an abomination by the general population. Forgery is an interesting system, one I hope also plays a role in further works set on Sel; I’d love to see conflict or cooperation between an Elantrian user of AonDor magic and a Forger.
The Emperor’s Soul is told over the course of 100 days in the palace of the Emperor of the Rose Empire, Ashravan. The protagonist of the novel is Shai, a Forger who had been captured attempting to steal the most valuable relic in the palace, leaving a Forged fake in its place. In an assassination attempt, Emperor Ashravan had been left permanently brain damaged and mindless, so the main advisors of the Emperor’s political faction, desperate to keep power, recruit Shai to use her Forgery to recreate the Emperor’s soul. To do this Shai must gain an intimate knowledge and understanding of the Emperor, so that she can rebuild his soul in a Forgery stamp to restore his mind. Shai has only 100 days until the Emperor must reappear, and is given the impossible task of rebuilding the mind of a man she has never met, or she shall be executed. Running parallel to this is a lot of scheming among the advisors, a guard with a grudge and Gaotona, an advisor more open minded and sympathetic than the rest, with whom Shai forms an odd bond.
Similarly to The Alloy of Law before it, Sanderson focuses upon a much smaller scale here. This rigid 100 day structure is interesting, and unlike anything that he’s done before. For a novel mostly about a young woman sitting in one room reading about a dead Emperor and plotting her escape, it never feels lacking in action and incident. It is a novella, and very short, so therefore feels almost like a prologue to a longer story. If this story will one day manifest remains to be seen, Sanderson has the rest of the Stormlight Archive, future Mistborn trilogies and other standalone works on his plate at the moment, so perhaps he can be forgiven in not returning us to the Rose Empire, but it would be a shame, as we are introduced to an interesting world which could easily host further adventures. The Emperor’s Soul is Sanderson’s most focused work yet, dealing with a small group of characters in a small space, and is all the better for it. As much as I liked it, I thought that The Alloy of Law felt faintly incomplete due it’s short length, but this isn’t really a problem here; we get just as much character growth and world building as we need to tell a good story, and it’s amazing how much Sanderson manages to cram in.
Sanderson’s unflashy style conceals someone who really understands how to write, with a great understanding of the craft of writing. Sanderson is just so solidly competent, and a tendency to occasionally indulge in clichés in his earlier work is thoroughly stamped out by this point. Although this novel lacks the beautiful vistas of his other novels, particularly The Way of Kings, it makes up for it through the wonderful depiction of a master performing her craft. Sanderson really conveys a sense of wonder in what Shai is doing, reserving his best prose for descriptions of Shai’s meticulous crafting of the stamp to restore the Emperor’s soul.
By the very nature of the novella’s brevity, Sanderson doesn’t get as much time to focus upon characterisation as he might usually. Shai is a great protagonist, but in many ways the real focus8 of the novel is Emperor Ahsravan himself. Through Shai’s research into his past we learn more and more about him, and he emerges as an interesting character, trapped between idealism and moral cowardice. I enjoyed the character of Gaotona, trapped between his instinctive disgust at Forgery, yet overwhelmed by the beauty it can create. I hope we see some of these characters again, but I doubt we will, so I’m glad I got to meet them for the short time the novella lasts.
The Emperor’s Soul is everything that makes Sanderson so special in microcosm. It won’t take you long to read, but the time that it does take is thoroughly enjoyable. Now that I’ve finished with Sanderson for now, it’s time to pick my next big fantasy author. I’m looking at you Patrick Rothfuss!