Review: THE EMPEROR’S SOUL by Brandon Sanderson
This novella was recommended by a number of fellow bloggers as a good sample of Brandon Sanderson’s writing, so I need to start this review by thanking them for pointing me toward this delightful story. If the rest of Sanderson’s work follows this same path, I know I will enjoy his novels very much.
Shai is a Forger, and a very special one, because she works within the parameters of her world’s peculiar brand of magic, which allows her to change an object’s appearance by manipulating its essence, and its history. It’s a very fascinating concept, one that postulates the presence of a soul even in inanimate objects, so that the means through which the changes are wrought is a special seal called “soulstamp”, applied to a specific item so that it’s transformed. The most intriguing detail of this concept comes from the need for believability of the changes: in other words, the modifications must be coherent with the item’s origins and past history if they are to be successful. You can change the history of an old, scarred table, for example, by rewriting its past of neglect into one of loving care and dutiful maintenance, so that the soulstamp will transform it into a gleaming, polished surface. But you can’t turn that table into a vase, or a stone statue.
When the Emperor is left comatose and mindless after an assassination attempt that cost him his Empress’ life, the inner council turns to Shai – who is in prison for the attempted theft of the Emperor’s scepter – to create a soulstamp that will give them back their Emperor, or at least a useful approximation that will allow them to keep hold of their power. Ironically, Shai was arrested and sentenced to death because of her Forgery, a practice that’s both outlawed and reviled, and here lies the paradox of the situation, expressed by elder Arbiter Gaotona: “…one must accept the aid of darkness in order to contain a greater darkness”.
Gaotona is Shai’s counterpoint, her polar opposite, and the main attraction of this story comes from their interactions, and the way they grow both closer and more distant in the course of events, in a complicated dance not dissimilar from the one played by planets as their orbits are influenced by the laws of gravity. They feel a growing respect for each other, even though it remains unexpressed, one that brings Shai toward a sort of obsessive honesty born of pride (for want of a better definition) and Gaotona toward a grudging respect for the younger woman’s talent and skills. They are the true protagonists of the tale, leaving the other characters in the background, never fully fleshed nor defined – and in the end it matters little, because the story takes life from the confrontational osmosis binding the young and the old in a tight relationship that excludes everything and everyone else.
The kind of magic show in this novella is of a new and fascinating type, and I enjoyed the way it’s developed in the short span of this narrative form, with a few brush strokes and very little exposition, so that it feels very organic and… natural, not contrived at all. What’s most intriguing is the concept that Forgery can be applied to people as well as objects, and that the related concept of soul is taken in interesting directions: if an item’s soul can be directed toward a better expression of itself (the scarred table becoming a beautiful desk, or the unformed stone morphing into a pleasing statue), can this be applied to a person’s soul as well? And would this “nudge” toward a better self be ethical?
Shai’s inner debate on this matter remains mostly hidden, but it’s defined by her feverish application to the task at hand, even when it delays the careful plans of escape she’s concocting, even when it threatens her own survival: the last part of the story feels like a breathless race against time, marked by the dwindling number of days left to her before the cover for the Emperor’s “illness” is blown apart. The intricate weave of outward appearances and inner workings, the dangerous games she plays, all contribute to a build-up of tension that makes the last pages a breathless rush, and a very enjoyable read.
I’m fascinated by Sanderson’s skill in world-building, and hungry for more.