Nov 20 2012 10:00am

Sanderson on a Smaller Scale: The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson

A review of Brandon Sanderson’s new novella The Emperor’s SoulAt the start of Brandon Sanderson’s latest novella The Emperor’s Soul, Emperor Ashravan has just barely survived an assassination attempt. He’s alive thanks to his healers’ skills, but his mind has been wiped completely. The ruling Arbiters have managed to keep the fact that their Emperor has become a vegetable secret, thanks to the hundred day solitary mourning period he is expected to maintain for the death of his wife, the Empress, who died in the same attack. However, once that period runs out, it will become clear that the Emperor is no longer able to rule, and the power in the Empire will inevitably change hands....

It’s therefore an incredibly happy coincidence that the Empire has recently captured Shai, a master Forger with the magical ability to re-create and change objects and even people. Even though Forging is considered an abomination by the Empire, the Arbiters are left with little choice and set a bold plan in motion: they will force their prisoner to attempt the impossible and Forge a new soul for the Emperor, before the rest of the world finds out what happened...

In recent months, Brandon Sanderson has surprised his fans with two brand new novellas: first the contemporary fantasy/crime hybrid Legion (excerpt) and now The Emperor’s Soul (excerpt). Sanderson is best known for his long form epic fantasy: the Mistborn books, the Stormlight Archives, and of course the long-awaited final installments in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. He’s a talented and extremely popular author, but most people probably weren’t expecting these shorter works, because brevity is not the first quality that comes to mind when you hear his name and he has a few other projects on his plate already. Still, it’s hard to get upset when an author is as incredibly productive as Sanderson. (Seriously, where does he find the time?)

The Emperor’s Soul is set in the same world as the author’s earlier novel Elantris, but it can be read completely independently and would actually serve well as an introduction to Sanderson’s works, just in case there’s anyone left who hasn’t read him yet. At the same time, the author’s fans will spot subtle references to a certain character who pops up in many of his novels, which will add a whole new dimension to this story.

Because of its shorter format, The Emperor’s Soul doesn’t have the same epic scale as Sanderson’s other works. Even though the fate of an empire hangs in the balance, the bulk of the novella focuses on the interactions between the Forger Shai and the Arbiter Gaotona during Shai’s imprisonment, giving the story an unexpectedly intimate and somewhat claustrophobic atmosphere: the stakes are high, but the camera is focused almost exclusively on the all-important work Shai is doing in captivity and against her will.

True to Sanderson’s First Law, the author makes sure that the reader understands every aspect of the magic system and every way it could or could not be used, starting from the very beginning of the novella when Shai is exploring ways to escape her prison. This level of detail will please those readers who enjoy getting into the intricacies of a magic system (almost a prerequisite if you want to enjoy Sanderson’s works), but in this case it takes up a large amount of space in a relatively short book.

What’s much more interesting is the way many of the scenes with Shai and Gaotona explore the magic system’s philosophical implications. What’s the value of a work of art if almost anything can be copied through Forging? What does it mean for a person’s identity when personalities, skills, or entire souls can be changed? As we learn, Shai was taught that “a Forger wasn’t a simple scam artist or trickster. A Forger was an artist who painted with human perception. [...] Respect the people you lie to [...]. Steal from them long enough, and you will begin to understand them.” On the other side, Gaotona at one point says, “a life full of lying makes reality and falsehood intermix,” being well aware that he is applying this same idea to the legitimacy of his empire’s ruler.

Truth be told, much like in Legion, it feels as if this story would have benefited from more space to breathe. Sanderson has a lot of material to work with in The Emperor’s Soul, but some of it is underdeveloped or merely hinted at: the rest of the empire, its politics and its past, the other Arbiters and Factions, Shai’s past, and of course the business with the scepter and the Imperial Fool. Some characters, like Captain Zu and the Bloodsealer, are barely defined at all. The Emperor’s Soul is an enjoyable novella, but it gives the impression that Sanderson crammed the outline for an entire novel into too few pages. The end result feels abbreviated and a bit unbalanced, like a section of a longer work that still needs to include enough exposition to make sense and, maybe because of this, leaves some other aspects undeveloped.

Still, The Emperor’s Soul is a worthy addition to Sanderson’s bibliography: a new magic system with some interesting implications, a couple of fascinating characters, a focused plot, and a subtle link to the much larger picture he’s been painting for years. I can’t shake the feeling that, given a few empty months in his busy writing schedule, Sanderson would have turned all of this into an amazing full length novel, but as it stands, The Emperor’s Soul is an enjoyable novella and a nice teaser for his next major work.

Stefan Raets reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. His website is Far Beyond Reality.

Deana Whitney
1. Braid_Tug
With as often as Sanderson says his natural format is the long epic, I wonder way he keeps trying for the shorter works?
Personal challenge? Contract fulfillment?
Burning desire to write in another world because his primary focus world of the moment is driving him nuts?
2. Matt_Reader
@1 Brandon often takes time off between larger projects like The Way of Kings and the Wheel of Time to write something else. A way of cleansing his palate to keep from diving into the same world over and over and perhaps let it get stale The point of these 'diversions' isn't to put out publishable material, it is just an exercise for him to not to lose his love of writing.

The problem, if you want to call it that, is that these diversions are pretty good stand alone stories. Rather than let all of that writing go unpublished, he takes some of those good stories, polishes them, and publishes them between his major epic fantasy projects.

In Sanderson's mind, the decision isn't between publishing these types of stories OR working on his epic fantasy books. Rather, the decision is between publishing these shorter works or letting them sit on his hard drive.

And as long as Sanderson continues to publish these short works, I'll continue to buy them.
3. Lalo Burns
Sanderson has said before that he likes to take those breaks between the long epics to rejuvenate and decompress. His Alcatraz books fulfilled this for a while for instance, WARBREAKER I believe also fulfilled this. Even to a certain extent I think THE ALLOY OF LAW fulfilled this. It gives him time to just take a step back, toy around with something new and then go back to the other series (be it Wheel of Time or now Stormlight) with relatively fresh eyes.

He also has the short story in ARMORED (which I need to read), though that's set within the Mistborn Magic System so perhaps that didn't suffer as much for being even shorter then either LEGION or EMPEROR'S SOUL.

I want more of Shai--I like her and wooo I was right about the Imperial Fool being who I thought he was. Maybe he'll develop this more about he's done with Stormlight 2, Rithmatist and Steelheart?
Risha Jorgensen
4. RishaBree
To be fair, Firstborn is my favorite of all the short stories you've ever published on this site.
Melissa Shumake
5. cherie_2137
i enjoyed the emperor's soul (although i got some sticker shock- $14 for a paperback novella is a little extreme) but i would agree. it could have been fleshed out more and i would have enjoyed it even more. heck, just a novel the length of alloy of law would have satisfied me (not everything has to be 600+ pages :p ) but, as written, it's still enjoyable and entertaining.
6. Diriashef
Thats precisely why I dislike Snderson's books. He goes far too heavy on the magic system exposition. I prefer my magic in the manner of the Malazan books.
Rob Munnelly
7. RobMRobM
Finally read it. Liked it, but two questions -

1. How do we know that this is the same planet as Elantris? Is there an in-text basis or is it ex cathedra from Brandon.

2. Other reviews have stated that the Fool who betrayed Shai is Hoid. Same question - in text or is it just Brandon?

I'm not sure which came first, but the stamps in this and the drawings in Elantris were my first clue that they were the same world. Both are magic through physically creating a pattern. Given Brandon's penchant for keeping all his magic related on each world it made sense. I also believe the empire is mentioned in passing in Elantris, but I'm less sure on that.

There is word of Brandon that they are the same also. Not sure if that came out before or after the novella was released.
Cory S.
10. Hungry_For_Hands
Rob, something else to note as well. If you happen to do a re-read on it, there is a quote somewhere in there where Shai comments that the stamps remind her of a map (or something along those lines). That is what first got me thinking about Elantris, because if you remember the magic system there involved drawing symbols that were based on the shape of the land.

And as TBGH said, it has been confirmed by Brandon as well.

Edit - Found the quote Pg 66 "The setting mark finished every soulstamp, indicating no more carving was to come. She had always fancied it to look like the shape of MaiPon, her homeland."
Rob Munnelly
11. RobMRobM
Interesting, thanks.

That, of course, begs the question of how we know Hoid is the Fool. Is that WoB or is there a textual basis?

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