Shai is a forger, able to magically change any item by rewriting its history. For example, she can turn a battered piece of furniture into the beautiful object it could have been by bonding with it, understanding its past and how it sees itself, and then altering the past enough to change the furniture’s destiny. Unfortunately, forgery is despised by the empire because forgers often use their skills to counterfeit famous artists’ work. In fact, Shai is currently in prison for doing just this — she was caught trying to steal the emperor’s scepter so she could replace it with her own forgery.
Usually in a case like this Shai would be executed, but the emperor’s closest advisors decide they need her forbidden skills instead. The emperor has recently survived an assassination attempt, but his doctors were only able to save him by giving him a new brain. Now he lives, but his brain is empty — his memories and personality are gone. His arbiters, whose positions and livelihoods are dependent on this emperor’s reign, want Shai to do something illegal; they want her to recreate the emperor by forging his soul.
Of course Shai must take this job, or she’ll be executed, but she knows that despite the arbiters’ promises, she’ll be killed when she’s done because they don’t want anyone knowing the truth about the emperor. Shai works diligently to do the job they want, but she also plans for escape. Yet as she continues to progress, her artist’s pride begins to enjoy the challenge. Does she have the skill to produce the ultimate forgery? And does she really want to, or should she use this opportunity to remodel the emperor?
I’ve come to expect a lot from Brandon Sanderson: unique and fascinating detailed magic systems, interesting settings, likeable characters, and the perfect amount of truly funny humor. Sanderson’s new novella, The Emperor’s Soul, partially meets my expectations. Shai is likeable enough, though she’s not especially memorable. I missed Sanderson’s sense of humor in this novella, not because I think every story needs to have some humor, but because I particularly like Brandon Sanderson’s sense of humor and look forward to that element in his work.
Sanderson’s magic system is inventive and intriguing and allows us the opportunity to think about some ideas that I find really interesting, such as how personalities are formed. However, Shai’s detailed explanations of her craft and all its rules tend to dominate and bog down the plot and, because this book is so short, it feels unbalanced. Furthermore, unlike Sanderson’s previous magic systems, I can’t say that I truly believed in this one. For one thing, if Shai is forging objects by changing their histories or their construction, won’t this have other far-reaching effects on the world and not just the object being forged? If the battered piece of furniture is altered so that it thinks it was loved and cared for, or so it was made from different materials, then not only its history is changed, but there are people or objects involved whose histories are now perceived as different, too. Sanderson addresses this with rules (e.g., the forgery won’t take if it’s too far from reality) but I wasn’t completely convinced.
Even more problematic, though, is trying to forge a personality. In order to do so, Shai must understand the emperor. She makes clear that this is difficult and takes a lot of time and research because people’s motives and desires are intricate and conflicting, but it’s really so much more than that. Not only can we not understand our own motives and desires, we don’t really even know what they are and they’re dependent on too many factors — our genes, our prenatal environment, our upbringing, and so many factors that we can’t possibly identify. We wouldn’t be able to do this for ourselves, much less someone who we can only know from reading histories and a diary. Especially if that person had a brand new brain that was wiped clean of all the factors that built the personality in the first place. It just doesn’t work.
But still, if we can put aside our doubts, Sanderson’s story is enjoyable and makes a great thought exercise. For example, Sanderson made me wonder what makes art beautiful. Why is an original work of art so much more appealing than a perfect copy? It’s got to be more than just the way it looks. Also it was interesting to consider how people’s personalities are gradually changed over time by outside influences and how in some cases that’s a good thing and in others it’s not.
I’m being a little tough on The Emperor’s Soul, but that’s partly because my expectations are so high for Brandon Sanderson’s work. The man writes great fantasy and it’s exciting to see him trying new things, including two shorter stand-alone works this year. More newness is expected for next year and those books are already on my TBR list, as is everything Sanderson writes.
I listened to Angela Lin’s pleasant performance in Recorded Books’ audio version of The Emperor’s Soul which I can heartily recommend for those who want to read Sanderson’s latest novella.