This week on Down the Stacks, for the first time I return to an author I’ve previously featured: Brandon Sanderson. As I’ve said before, Sanderson is one of my all-time favorites because of his world-building and ability to hold his readers’s interest through hundreds of pages. This week’s selection, The Emperor’s Soul, is a much lighter affair, clocking in at a modest 167 pages. Despite its brevity, however, The Emperor’s Soul still has most of the hallmarks of Sanderson’s writing.
The Emperor’s Soul takes place on a world called Sel, which also happens to be the world of Sanderson’s first novel, Elantris. Soul is set in a far different part of Sel than Elantris, but not so far removed that the two books don’t share a few common reference points. Soul’s setting is the Rose Empire, and more specifically a single room in the imperial palace. Our protagonist is Wan ShaiLu, a young woman being held for execution for the crime of being a Forger until an assassination attempt on Emperor Ashravan compels his courtiers to strike a deal with Shai. The assassination has left Ashravan braindead, essentially soulless, and only a Forger like Shai has the ability to craft a new soul. Forging souls is considered an abomination by the Empire’s dominant race-class, but it’s the only option to prevent the current faction from falling out of power. Shai accepts the challenge, but with only 100 days to work, guarded by a man who desires her death, and well aware of the politics driving everything, Shai needs all her tricks just to survive.
The compact setting and small cast size of the book limits how much world building it can accomplish, but Sanderson does a good job at giving us insight into the Rose Empire anyway. That said, The Emperor’s Soul is more of a case study of Forgery magic than anything else. The plot meanders between Shai’s research into Emperor Ashravan’s history and character and her conversations with Arbiter Gaotona about how Forgery works.
Shai is a master at her craft of creating forgeries and swapping them for the real object, which requires the skillsets of a thief and a con artist as well as an artist. The only reason she’s even captured in the first place is because she had allied with the Imperial Fool to swap out a royal scepter and was betrayed. She is not the type of person to give up; no matter what, she always looks for openings in her captors’s habits and expectations to exploit. She initially accepts the Arbiters’s challenge to Forge the Emperor’s soul just to buy more time to devise an escape plan, but eventually she pursues the challenge for its own sake.
There are five Arbiters who serve under Emperor Ashravan, but only two actually take part in the story: Gaotano and Frava. Frava is corrupt and tries to bribe Shai to tweak Ashravan’s soul with “backdoor” controls, and Shai considers her to be the biggest threat to her survival. Gaotano, on the other hand, takes an unusual interest in Shai’s “abominable” magic, seeking to understand how it works and why Shai uses it to forge art rather than create new art.
The only other two characters of interest besides Ashravan himself (who we learn a lot about as Shai studies him) are Zu, the guard that looks forward to killing Shai because she embarrassed him by (almost) getting away with her scepter-swap job, and the unnamed Bloodsealer, a pale man who uses a kind of magic similar to Shai’s Forgery to maintain a blood-based alarm on the door of Shai’s room so she can’t just walk out.
As I said, Forgery is the main attraction of The Emperor’s Soul. Forgery basically uses carefully crafted stamps to change things by re-writing their personal history. The magic is somewhat limited by plausibility: a forger can’t turn metal chains into, say, soap, because nobody would reasonably think to make a chain out of soap, and the classic alchemist lead-into-gold trick is similarly unlikely because who’d use gold in something you use lead for? (The reverse, gold-into-lead, works better because lead impurities could reasonably be found in gold) Even humans can be Forged to change their histories and abilities, which is why making a new soul of Ashravan is even possible, but because a person’s personality changes a little every day, soul-Forgery stamps don’t “take” for very long - a day at the most without reapplication. Despite from these limitations, Forgery can accomplish amazing things. Over the course of the book, Shai turns her small room with worn-out furniture into one of the most beautiful rooms in the palace by rewriting each object’s history to include more care and attention.
There’s really not much more to say about The Emperor’s Soul, simply because it’s so short. You could easily read the whole thing in one day. The experience would be worth your time, because it’s a nice, light introduction to Brandon Sanderson’s style. I’d recommend it for anyone.