The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson
The Emperor’s Soul is a stand-alone novella by Brandon Sanderson, set on the same world as the MISTBORN trilogy but in a different society. The story moves briskly and Sanderson’s prose is graceful and lively as always. It’s a pleasant way to spend a few hours.
Shai is a Forger — a person who can magically change the nature of an object (or a person) by changing its history. When the Emperor Ashravan is left in a coma following a failed assassination attempt, Shai, who was imprisoned for Forging, is drafted into an impossible assignment. She must re-create the Emperor’s soul before anyone discovers that he is brain-dead as a result of the attempt. And she faces an impossible deadline: ninety-eight days, which is the time period the Emperor is said to be in seclusion following the death of the Empress.
Shai must also dodge the treachery of various royal councilors. At least one of the ruling party, The Heritage Faction, wants the Emperor revived with a control switch. At least one of them hates and distrusts Forgers. Shai, who is a confidence artist as well as a Forger, must manipulate her way to freedom before she is killed because she knows too much.
Sanderson uses the ninety-eight days (the mourning period is one hundred days; the council argued about this plan for two of them) as a countdown device, ratcheting up the suspense. Shai’s interactions with Gaotona, an honest councilor who hates the idea of Forgery; Zu, a royal guard who is dead set on killing her; and the treacherous councilors, all gleam with intelligence and strategy.
Like some other reviewers though (see here) I had some trouble with the magic of Forging. The idea of learning an object completely and persuading it, magically, to change its nature, is fascinating. Shai, though, actually rewrites the object’s history. How do you change the history of an object without changing the history around it? For example, Shai is given a dilapidated, broken-down table for her room. The table was a gift, a token from another country. The Emperor did not trust that country, so he stored away the table and ignored it. Shai changes the table’s history so that it is cherished and cared for. Does this mean that the historic political situation changed as well? It might be easy to rationalize a history change for an object that doesn’t have ripples, but how do you explain it for a person? Later, when we see it used on a person, it looks more like an implanted memory or hypnosis than an actual alternate history. If they are implanted memories, does this mean that manufactured objects have memory and intelligence? I don’t think this wonderful, puzzling concept was fully developed in this short work.
Despite this head-scratching problem (it almost gave me a time-travel headache), The Emperor’s Soul is a fun read. As a bonus, the Tachyon Press edition has a lovely cover.