Genius often blurs the distinction between admiration and envy.
With each new work I encounter by Brandon Sanderson, I stray increasingly towards the fuzzy dark side of that continuum, begrudgingly captivated by the masterful craft with which he weaves his Cosmere.
Sanderson’s writing tickles my pineal gland while simultaneously pummeling my writerly confidence with a gauntlet of shardplate.
The Emperor’s Soul
Inspired by a trip to the National Palace Museum in Taiwan, Sanderson created a world in which skilled artists craft stamps that can rewrite individual histories, though they do so at their own risk. This practice – known as soul-forging – is considered by most to be an abomination, which creates no shortage of conflict between Shai, an expert forger, and her captors, a caste of government officials desperate to alter the fate of their emperor.
I picked up this novella after finishing the first two books of the Stormlight Archive, whose length probably deserve their own classification as a publishing medium (I fancy the term “megatome.” Sounds like if you collect the whole series, the books will transform into some kind of ink-slinging dragon mech, but I digress). The Emperor’s Soul is Sanderson’s version of a short story, but with all the magic, character, and conflict you’d expect from his lengthier novels.
The Magic System
Expanding on his concept of the cognitive realm, one of the pillars of creation in Sanderson’s cosmere, the art of soul-forging plays with the cross-pollination of Platonic Forms and Shinto Kami. Through an understanding of something’s nature or essence, a forger can create a specialized stamp that modifies its fundamental composition. The more complex an object is, the more difficult it is to create a lasting modification. So when the protagonist is charged with forging a new soul for the emperor or face execution, she has her work cut out for her. (Did I mention there’s a strict deadline?)
Shai is a forger, both creatively and professionally. Like any successful con artist, she juggles double-edged blades of truth and deception to distract others from seeing her true purpose. Even the reader, with an inside look at each of her tricks, is left wondering what her final move will be.
Facing execution for forgery, Shai is offered the opportunity to use her art to help the very people who decry her work as abominable. Talented wielder of truth that she is, Shai sees through the false promises of her captors, but she plays their game to buy the time she needs to plan her escape.
In a short 150 pages, Sanderson builds an epic world for readers to explore from the perspective of a witty and charismatic con artist, even in spite of the fact that she’s confined to little more than a prison cell. He weaves a masterful web of believable characters that seize the readers’ attention and pulls them into the conflict, all while exploring themes like the nature of beauty and the motivation for forgery.
The soul of Sanderson work is stamped on a page near the end of his novella (minor spoiler warning):
True art was more than beauty; it was more than technique. It was not just imitation. It was boldness, it was contrast, it was subtlety.[…]Raw, yet polished. Reckless, but calculated.
Awesome, yet unseen.
The Emperor’s Soul is an incredible story that everyone should read. It’s short enough to consume in an evening and genuinely deserves the Hugo Award it won in 2013.
I might despair at the idea of never achieving a modicum of Sanderson’s talent or success, but there is no denying the quality of his craft.
It truly is a work of art.