#CBR5 Maneuver #8 – The Emperor’s Soul
Profile: Epic Fantasy, Short Story
Summary: From the back cover,
“When Shai is caught replacing the Moon Scepter with her nearly flawless forgery, she must bargain for her life. An assassin has left the Emperor Ashravan without consciousness, a circumstance concealed only by the death of his wife. If the emperor does not emerge after his hundred-day mourning period, the rule of the Heritage Faction will be forfeit and the empire will fall into chaos.
Shai is given an impossible task: to create – to Forge – a new soul for the emperor in fewer than one hundred days. But her soul-Forgery is considered an abomination by her captors. She is confined to a tiny, dirty chamber, guarded by a man who hates her, spied upon by politicians, and trapped behind a door sealed in her own blood. Shai’s only possible ally is the emperor’s most loyal councilor, Gaotona, who struggles to understand her true talent.
Time is running out for Shai. Forging, while deducing the motivations of her captors, she needs a perfect plan to escape.”
After Action Report:
Okay, I lied. There was one more Sanderson book. Sorry. The Emperor’s Soul is a short novella set in the same world as Elantris but removed from the events of that book by significant distance and an unspecified amount of time. It is a very different sort of work than Sanderson’s typical epic fantasy fare. As dictated by its size, it is a very focused story with only one protagonist and one storyline. But there is some surprising depth contained in this small package. At its heart, The Emperor’s Soul is about understanding people, and in a roundabout way, about the process of writing characters; creating people.
The central figure of The Emperor’s Soul is Wan ShaiLu, called Shai. With two minor exceptions, the entirety of the novella is told from her perspective. Betrayed by her partner in crime, a man known only as The Fool, Shai is coerced into undertaking the daunting task of magically recreating the personality of a brain dead emperor. Under the threat of death, and a rapidly approaching deadline, she must accomplish two impossible tasks: understanding another human being utterly and completely, and escaping the powerful forces that will kill her whether she succeeds or not.
Shai practices a type of magic called Forgery, which allows her to take direct control of the causality of an object, animal or even person, altering its history to effect change in the present. For example, a gifted Forger could rewrite the history of a worn-down table so that it received proper care, suddenly transforming its current self into a more pristine version. They key to this magic is plausibility. A table that had been sitting abandoned in a forest, untouched by people for years, would not be able to sustain the transformation, but one in a palace storage room might. Similarly, changes made to a person must be within certain borders of plausibility. So in order to recreate the emperor’s personality, Shai must first understand it. A task complicated by the emperor’s current coma.
Shai is easily the most compelling female character Sanderson has ever written. Conceived of as the ultimate con-artist, she can read people and objects with equal ease and, with the aid of her magical abilities, is capable of manipulating both. She is strong, confidant and very skilled, but also reasonable and appropriately flawed. In her case, overconfidence and pride are her most damning vices, and she is nearly undermined by both in the course of the short story. Sanderson does tend to write strong female protagonists for his stories, but they are usually either inconsistent or stagnant. Shai is refreshing because her flaws stem from her strengths and both are driven by a personality that is well developed and explored.
Shai’s character also drives the questions that The Emperor’s Soul raises about the nature of art and personality. She is challenged in various ways by the characters who are imprisoning her. Most of these challenges are physical or mental, but the one posed by Gaotona is philosophical and, to a degree, aesthetic. Gaotona, a close friend of the emperor, challenges Shai from the perspective of the Rose Empire. The empire looks down upon the art of Forgery, implications of theft notwithstanding, and Gaotona is confused as to why a woman as skilled as Shai would lower herself to the level of charlatans. For her part, Shai maintains her pride in her work and defends the legitimacy of her art not with words, but with the art itself.
In one scene, Gaotona confronts her over a painting she stole while testing palace security, uncovering that, while guards did find an obvious copy of the painting in her room, the painting currently hanging from the wall in the palace was also a copy, but one so good that even the experts couldn’t distinguish it from the original. He is staggered by her obvious skill, even in mundane painting and through the course of the book struggles to reconcile his distaste for her abilities and profession with his growing admiration for her. The interplay between Gaotona and Shai is some of the best writing Sanderson has ever done, equal parts compelling dialogue and thought provoking debate.
The Emperor’s Soul takes advantage of its short format and never manages to feel even remotely slow. The ending is a little on the abrupt side, but also very well executed. Sanderson keeps the plot moving with unpredictable hops forward in time that do double duty cutting down the tedium of the Soul Forging process and artificially increasing the urgency of the plot.
It’s rare that I make a recommendation without any reservations, but The Emperor’s Soul deserves the unreserved praise. It is exemplar of what the fantasy genre could be if it were not bogged down so much in either the traditions of Tolkien or the frenzy of the urban subgenres. Like other strong short stories, it exemplifies the best traits of its genre and sheds the worst.