Last year I read Mistborn, my first and only experience with Brandon Sanderson, until now. I was happy to have a reason to read more of his work sooner rather than later. Sanderson is an author whose approach to fantasy is a happy blend of the traditional tropes of epic, adventure-based fantasy with the more modern need to question certain conventions. This is certainly the case in the Hugo-nominated The Emperor’s Soul. Sanderson conjures yet another compelling system of magic and another good protagonist to bear the burden of the physical and psychological conflicts he inflicts. As usual, with Sanderson magic is not just a means to an end or a set of flashy tricks but something verging on the philosophical and the artistic.
I didn’t disguise my disinterest in allomancy, the signature flavour of magic in Mistborn. Forging, on the other hand, seemed much more interesting. Forgers like Shai manipulate reality on a very deep level. Through symbols carved or stamped onto objects, Forgers can rewrite the history of an object—tweak it so that it literally becomes something different. A neglected table, for example, might have been a fabulous, ornate object had it not been forgotten by its owner. It’s all right there in the name, Forging. Simultaneously an action taken to create, through intense heat and pressure and strength, as well as an action to deceive, falsify. This type of magic is immensely powerful, but it requires knowledge, skill, and patience. Knowledge, because the Forger must know the history of the object in order to seize upon a plausible deviation, a convenient "what if". Skill, because each carving must be complete to the last detail. Patience, because the first two take time.
Forging is not well-regarded in The Emperor’s Soul. Caught attempting to steal the Moon Sceptre, Shai expects to be imprisoned and probably executed. Instead, the emperor’s advisers hire her to Forge a soul for the emperor. His own, or at least his mind, has been destroyed in a botched assassination attempt, and if this gets out, the emperor’s advisers lose their comfy positions of power. Shai has 100 days to recreate the emperor’s personality and memories from written accounts—that is, if one of the advisers doesn’t kill her before then and have their own pet Forger pick up the pieces.
Shai loves her craft and regards it as an art. She lives and breathes Forging, as demonstrated by her need to re-Forge the room in which she is imprisoned. She shores up a wall, redoes the floor, repairs the window, etc. For Shai, Forging is not just legitimate but joyous, a reification of what might-have-been and a rejection of the tyranny of what is. Sanderson juxtaposes this with Gaotona’s evident disdain and horror of Forging. He reluctantly participates in this charade only because he views the alternative—a power vacuum, struggle, and perhaps even civil war—with more horror. He submits as a test subject, someone close enough to the emperor for Shai to determine if her soulstamps will work properly, and he even takes up the study of Forgery from an academic perspective—the better to know one’s enemy and all that. Shai and Gaotona eventually develop an uneasy truce, a recognition between each of the other’s skill and strong sense of self. Shai pays Gaotona the compliment of considering him an honest politician, and hence the hardest to manipulate as she effects her escape. He, in turn, comes to regard her as more human, more deserving of sympathy.
In addition to these meditations on Forging and its role in society, Sanderson asks questions about the nature of power. Though, this being a novella, we get little sense of the world outside the room where Shai is being held, Sanderson provides a few sketchy details about Ashravan’s empire. We learn enough to know that he wasn’t the greatest emperor. And, of course, there is the question of whether Shai can approximate his personality enough, regardless of whether the stamping holds. To do this, Shai must read about the emperor’s life. She reads the official accounts, then those of palace servants and advisers, and finally Ashravan’s own personal journal. As she gets to know him, even becomes him, she starts wondering how people in power change. How does someone so idealistic like Ashravan become more interested in banquets than banking? Along the way, of course, she faces the temptation (both from within and without) to rewrite certain memories in a way that pushes Ashravan, that changes him for someone else’s ends. This is a lot of power for one person to have.
The Emperor’s Soul is a quick but captivating story. Sanderson manages to create an entirely new system of magic and explain it in pretty good detail. He has a strong protagonist and three-dimensional antagonists as well. Shai’s actions during the climax of the book bely her apparent powerlessness throughout most of it, a reminder that power is not easily defined or quantified, and sometimes misjudging the balance of power is even worse than being powerless. This is a fascinating novella and definitely a strong contender for this year’s Hugo Award, not to mention worth a read for Sanderson fans or newcomers alike.