The Emperor’s Soul is the first story in Brandon Sanderson’s Arcanum Unbounded: The Cosmere Collection. It won the Hugo Award for best novella in 2011.
The novella is set in the world of Elantris, the novel that introduced me to Brandon Sanderson and his writing. I’ve been craving for a new Elantris book for years, so I was really excited to read The Emperor’s Soul.
Here is the novella’s synopsis from Goodreads:
A heretic thief is the empire’s only hope in this fascinating tale that inhabits the same world as the popular novel, Elantris.
Shai is a Forger, a foreigner who can flawlessly copy and re-create any item by rewriting its history with skillful magic. Condemned to death after trying to steal the emperor’s scepter, she is given one opportunity to save herself. Though her skill as a Forger is considered an abomination by her captors, Shai will attempt to create a new soul for the emperor, who is almost dead.
Probing deeply into his life, she discovers Emperor Ashravan’s truest nature—and the opportunity to exploit it. Her only possible ally is one who is truly loyal to the emperor, but councilor Gaotona must overcome his prejudices to understand that Shai’s forgery is as much artistry as it is deception.
Brimming with magic and political intrigue, this deftly woven fantasy delves into the essence of a living spirit.
Okay, so this is not the Elantris I remember. It may be set in the same world, but the The Emperor’s Soul is 100% a standalone story. And I love it!
Why? Firstly, the magic system. The seal carvings Shai uses to create her forgeries is familiar to me, as it reminds me of the seals they sell in China and other Asian countries. For a small fee, artists can carve the Chinese characters of your name onto a seal that you can use or keep as a souvenir.
In a sense, the artist carves your essence onto the seal. That is essentially the magic of carvings in the novella: the magic of forgery. A wonderful thing to use for the preservation and appreciation of the arts, but an abomination when used for nefarious purposes like theft.
I imagine the transformation of old, dilapidated objects into works of art would look magnificent in reality. Broken floorboards into intricately carved wood, shattered glass into stained glass masterpieces. I shiver just thinking about it.
Secondly, the character of Shai is very likeable. She has to reconcile her need to escape vis-a-vis her desire to create the greatest forgery of all time–a forgery of the emperor’s soul. In the novella, Shai is offered chances to take the easy way out. Insert a backdoor for a politician to control the emperor’s actions. Add a desire in the emperor to keep Shai alive. Even escaping early without ever completing the emperor’s soul.
However, Shai is an artist who takes pride in her work. Forgery is simply her medium. So she sets out to create her greatest masterpiece–a soul containing Emperor Ashravan’s truest nature. Unlike most artists, Shai’s goal isn’t to get her name known, her work into the possession of collectors, galleries, and museums. Her purpose is to remain in the shadows, while fooling the whole kingdom into thinking her forgeries are real.
With great skill and study, Shai recreates the emperor’s soul. But in discovering the emperor’s truest self, Shai may have gone one step further. She may have created the purest and best version of the emperor that could have been, instead of the flawed and ultimately doomed leader the emperor was becoming.
One step further or one step too far? Read The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson and decide for yourself.