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The Emperor's Soul (Hugo Award Winner - Best Novella) Paperback – October 10, 2012
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"Sanderson proves to be an exceptionally talented writer in the pages of this book.... The Emperor's Soul is one of those rare high fantasies that feels fresh and is filled with a sense of wonder."
—Charles de Lint, Fantasy & Science Fiction
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The Emperor's Soul is set in Sel, the same planet as Elantris (though very far apart from where Elantris takes place). The magic in this world takes the form of elaborate seals, the inspirations for which were drawn from the red signature seals commonly found on East Asian artwork. Though in our world it only leaves an impression of authorship, on Sel, an intricate seal can be used to change the history of an object in a process called Forgery, thus changing its present state. A battered old desk can be Forged so that it had a caring owner in the past, transforming it into a sturdy, well-maintained version of itself. The book follows the captivity of a talented Forger who is faced with an impossible task; Forging the soul of the emperor, who has been rendered brain-dead by an assassination attempt.
I found that a usual problem with Brandon's other novellas is that they feel like a chapter in a larger novel; interesting, but without a strong conclusion which leaves too many open plot lines and a sense of frustration when it ends. However, The Emperor's Soul focuses on one self-contained event (that of Shai's captivity), so despite the short length of the book, the conclusion of the novella gives a sense of immense satisfaction to the reader.
To express myself in a more succinct way, The Emperor's Soul feels like it was _meant_ to be a novella, rather than a novel put on a diet against its will. The book is jammed packed with emotion and tension, but it works well because it is short enough that the reader isn't emotionally exhausted by the end of it. Every character introduced pulls their weight in carrying the plot along. No words are wasted while the book makes surprisingly deep inquiries into the complex motivations of each character. The entire book just feels _tight_.
In the end, all I really want to say is, well done, Mr. Brandon Sanderson! You've successfully mastered the art of the novella.
Brandon Sanderson is in top form as usual, despite the shortness of this novella. Shai is a thief and has no compunctions about being opportunistic, but her driving force is her pride in her art. She's proud and tenacious - almost to a fault. I wouldn't exactly say she's lovable, but who doesn't love a good noble thief? The supporting characters, with the exception of Gaotona and Emperor Ashravan, don't really have enough time to be developed, but that's understandable for a book less than 170 pages long.
I loved the examination of identity in this book. In order for Shai to be such a good Forger, she has to be extremely good at observing both people and objects - the little things that influence them, their motivations, how they can be manipulated. She needs to be able to produce her desired changes with the minimum of effort required for it to appear natural (think about the complexity of planting an idea via a dream in Inception - it's the same concept.) Shai does this instinctively, and it greatly adds to the complexity of the plot and the world building. Of course, she also does it deliberately, and how she pieced together Ashravan's life from notes and interviews is fascinating.
I was slightly dissatisfied at the end because it was over too quickly and I wanted more! More of the characters, more plot, more of the world. I can't really complain about that, though - this is a novella, and I knew that going into it, and Sanderson does a great job with it. The only thing that felt rushed was Shai's task [SPOILER WARNING] - she said it would ordinarily take her two years at least, but she manages to complete it in three months - why was she able to do it so much faster? I would've liked some sort of explanation. [END SPOILERS]
I hope Sanderson writes more books featuring Shai and the Empire - perhaps even coming into contact with characters from Elantris.