The Emperor’s Soul, Brandon Sanderson
Brandon Sanderson is easily one of the best fantasy writers alive today, and reading any book of his has the warm feeling of falling into the hands of a master. You are safe and secure in a beautifully constructed plot with compelling characters. The Emperor’s Soul, though short enough to be a novella rather than a novel, has these usual characteristics.
Shai is a trickster who has lived on her wits for as long as she can remember, until her latest and most dangerous heist yet – a break-in to the imperial palace – goes wrong and lands her in prison. Shai isn’t just a thief, however – she’s a Forger, a rare individual with the talent to change any object by rewriting its past with magic. When the arbiters, who rule the kingdom under the direction of Emperor Ashravan, offer her a bargain, she has no choice but to accept it. Ashravan has been rendered catatonic by a surprise assassination attempt, and they need Shai to change him back to who he used to be. Her talent is illegal, considered heretical by the majority of the empire, but they are desperate. Shai agrees, initially simply to placate her captors, but gradually she is pulled into the most impossible, daring task she has ever attempted: can she remake a soul?
Shai is immediately endearing – clever, acid-tongued, but not arrogant – she’s been knocked around enough by the world to know that there are obstacles that she cannot, in fact, overcome, and that a quick retort isn’t always her best way out of things. The arbiters with their various power-hungry selfishnesses are well-sketched and familiar; the face of evil in this novel. Arbiter Gaotona, the oldest of them and the one who used to be closest to the emperor before falling out of favor, is the only honest one among them, and he matches wits with Shai is ways they cannot. Assigning himself to help her in her task, a reluctant understanding and respect blooms between the aged, straightshooting councilor and the streetsmart, self-protective thief. The back and forth between them is gripping, as is Sanderson’s description of Shai’s meticulous, slow research and crafting of the emperor’s soul. She considers her Forgery to be art – when remaking objects, she returns them to that which they should be rather than that which they are, and in doing so, adds a touch of originality, of creation, to that which outsiders see as simply copying.
I enjoy novels greatly in which the characters are fully-formed prior to the opening of the novel, and such is the case here – Shai is not insecure, defensive, needy – she knows who she is and what she wants from life, and is both a brilliant Forger and a brilliant manipulator, but is also capable of empathy. Her time at the palace pushes her just that little bit toward the empathetic side, and she finds a note of redemption in it. Her defeat of her well-meaning but slow-witted guards and the sorcerer who helps the arbiters keep her captive is immensely satisfying. It’s a funny, tense, and gripping novella, and Shai is such a great, complex character that you’re left wanting more of her at the end. Highly recommend.
(Note: this is set in the same world as Elantris, and won a Hugo Award for Best Novella).
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