Brandon Sanderson has had a meteoric and well-deserved rise in the fantasy genre within the last decade. He has published more than a dozen novels, was chosen to finish Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series—and did that well!—and hosts the Hugo Award-winning podcast Writing Excuses. Sanderson’s trademark innovative magic systems, strong characters, and unique plot twists have gained him legions of fans. Though a novella, The Emperor’s Soul still has all of these aspects. It is a brief ode to unique magic packaged as an intriguing character-driven tale.
Shai is caught stealing an ancient artifact from the Emperor’s palace. She expects execution, but instead she is conscripted because of her unique magic. Emperor Ashravan’s soul has been damaged in an assassination attempt, and Shai may be the only one who can save him. To do this, she needs to use her magic to write him a new soul, something she’s never done before, which should probably take years—but Shai only has a hundred days until people will start suspecting something is wrong with the emperor. A hundred days in which she not only needs to write him a new soul, but devise a plan to escape the empire as well.
It is impossible to discuss this novella without exploring Sanderson’s newest brilliant magic system, called Forging. We all know Brandon Sanderson is a genius when it comes to devising original magic systems, but in The Emperor’s Soul, he went overboard—in a good way. Essentially, this novella is a study of magic. No other author can manage to fill three quarters of a book with information and world building and do it well. Through the eyes of Shai, we slowly learn about her magic. Being educated as a reader is half the fun of The Emperor’s Soul. As Shai’s work progresses, we become masters of Forging ourselves, and the only question we want answered—which forms the other half of the reading pleasure—is, “Will she succeed?”
Of course, a significant portion of Sanderson’s success lies in the artistically innovate magic systems he creates. With such wonderful magic, why would we not want to spend a whole novella being educated? The diehard fans of his work are especially in for a treat: this novella takes place in the world of Elantris, and it’s interesting to see the connections between Forging in this book and the magic in his debut novel. More than that, though, The Emperor’s Soul is a study of good epic fantasy writing. It is marvelous to notice all the inventive ways in which Sanderson feeds his reader info dumps throughout the narrative, without writing a dull story. He is truly a master of resourceful world building—perhaps the master.
Strong women… and men
Another of Sanderson’s skills has always been writing strong female characters, and he continues this tradition in The Emperor’s Soul. These women aren’t necessarily physically strong, but they are pleasantly and realistically characterized. Yes, Shai is female, but Sanderson does not focus on femininity the way other authors so often do. The other characters in The Emperor’s Soul treat Shai for what she is: an accomplished Forger and thus a threat. This is a breath of fresh air in a genre that often characterizes women as walking romantic—or sexual—plot points, or absurd stereotypes. Sanderson strikes a nearly flawless balance between these two extremes.
The other character The Emperor’s Soul focuses on is Gaotona, the emperor’s councilor and former best friend. While this is a short book and thus focuses mostly on Shai, it is intriguing to see Sanderson manage to flesh him out quite adequately. Gaotona is a realistic character, complete with flaws—he’s overbearing at times, for example—and strengths. His genuine inquisitiveness and abundance of honor despite his high governmental position make him disarmingly likeable.
The religious tapestry
Although it is not mentioned much, even by his fans, Sanderson does a superb job of handling religion in his novels, and especially in The Emperor’s Soul. For example, most people in the novella find Forging repulsive but will resort to using it for the greater good or to maintain their political power. This near-philosophical strive to balance the ends justifying the means gives this novella weight and meaning. Another moral question is raised by considering the actual soul of the emperor. If someone were to gain a new soul, would they still be the person they once were? Sanderson injects such religious questions into his writing without beating the reader over the head with it. Whether you are religious or not, seeing these moral and philosophical questions play a role in such a short novel is intriguing and adds substance to The Emperor’s Soul.
Nights and days
The only minor criticism I have for this amazing novella concerns Sanderson’s noted refusal to swear, while authors like Scott Lynch and George R.R. Martin bathe in profanities. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate his choice not to curse, and usually even like it. In his other works, part of Sanderson’s world building is establishing fictional cultures and religions—and creating alternative curses that are part of that, complementing the epicness of his works. After all, why would a completely fictional culture use our curses? In The Emperor’s Soul, however, Sanderson has not taken the time to define these cultures—and rightly so, considering the size of this story. He uses words like “Nights!” and “Days!” as profanities, but these words lack cultural context. Such invented expletives can unfortunately serve to break some readers’ immersion. Other readers may find the tantalizing hints of more depth in these characters and cultures to hold significant promise for future novels in the world of Elantris.
Why should you read this book?
The Emperor’s Soul has everything that Sanderson is known for: brilliant magic system, moral issues, strong characters, and an action-packed conclusion. It’s fairly short and easy to pick up, yet it is mind-blowing to see how much Sanderson manages to cram into it. What have you got to lose? If you have been afraid to start reading Sanderson’s works because most of his books are large or part of a series, this slim novella is perfect for you. The Sanderson legion eagerly awaits your membership.