Monday, 1 October 2012
‘The Emperor’s Soul’ – Brandon Sanderson (Tachyon Press)
A couple of novella shaped ideas have recently broken out and have begun making the rounds. If you’re interested in something a little more ‘modern day’ then you might want to take a look at ‘Legion’ but I’m more about fantasy myself so will be having a little look at ‘The Emperor’s Soul’, due for release in November of this year.
There is a lot of Brandon Sanderson’s work that I haven’t read yet but what I have read offers intriguing worlds with even more intriguing magic systems (a different one every time, seriously, how does he manage it?) I don’t have a lot of time to read ‘fat fantasy’ these days but a slim work? I can manage that.
‘The Emperor’s Soul’ isn’t without its issues but it’s still a book that kept me hooked for a large chunk of yesterday evening and reminded me, once again, that I really need to sit down with one of Sanderson’s larger book and a hot cup of coffee…
When Shai is caught replacing the Moon Scepter with her nearly flawless forgery, she knows that she will be executed but what waits for her outside the prison door could well be worse. It might offer a chance at escape but it could well promise a lonely death in her cell…
The Emperor escaped assassination but at great cost; his soul has left his body and Shai must forge him a new one before rival factions tear the Empire apart. Soul forgery is considered an abomination though and Shai finds herself trapped in a cell that’s sealed by her own blood and guarded by a man who will see her dead the first chance he gets. Outside her door, rival politicians attempt to use her for their own gain while her closest ally struggles to comprehend what she is truly capable of.
Shai must escape but the task at hand could well prove to be the most important moment of her life if she gets it right. How often do you get the chance to shape an entire Empire…?
‘The Emperor’s Soul’ is a very simple tale on the surface, possibly because it’s only a hundred and sixty seven pages long. That kind of length doesn’t give you a lot of room to really go into depth, or does it? I’ll leave that for you to decide but I for one think there’s a lot more to ‘The Emperor’s Soul’ than it at first lets on. It’s a book that seems to wrap itself up a bit too quickly and easily but it’s also a book that will have you thinking about some of its less obvious messages. There’s plenty there to chew on if you want.
Like I said just now, a very simple tale on the surface. Shai has a big task in front of her with all sorts riding on the outcome, not least her own life whether she succeeds or fails. The stakes are high then and, trapped in a room, Shai has little choice but to get on with it. The outcome is pretty much what you would expect, some exciting sequences at the end adding a few frills to a predictable conclusion that we all saw coming. We all know the old adage ‘write what you know’ (although Sanderson takes issue with that in the postscript) but I wouldn’t mind seeing Sanderson take a chance and try writing something really dark where it doesn’t all work out neatly at the end. It is all tidily done though with enough tension to drive the plot forwards at a nice rate.
One thing that I wasn’t too sure about was just how easy it was made for Shai to complete her task of soul-forgery. A big deal is made of how little time Shai has to get the job done and then, very conveniently, a diary is given to her detailing the Emperor’s innermost thoughts. The tension about Shai’s predicament remains but the tension over the creation of a new soul suddenly drops off sharply…
On the face of it then, the plot is simple and easy to follow. What I got more out of though was Sanderson’s exploration of the themes of control and the magic system of soul stamping. Again, soul stamping looks very simple on the surface but Sanderson uses it as a way of exploring not only the Emperor and Shai’s characters but also to ask questions about how ethical the practice actually is. It’s made very clear what the outcome will be if Shai doesn’t create a convincing Emperor but we are still asked to question whether any one person should be placed in the position where they have complete control over a person like that. What Shai does with that responsibility left me wondering whether she was an inherently good person or if she just couldn’t resist a final flourish in her greatest moment. I reckon the truth lies somewhere in between the two.
The notion of control, in the novella, is also an interesting one with differing levels of control tying everyone together. In such a complex set of relationships (very well drawn considering how short the book is) it takes real subtlety to achieve your own aims without alerting anyone else. Shai has to win through but all credit to Sanderson for making her do it in such a way that you don’t notice her methods even while he shows you. That added a neat twist to the end.
‘The Emperor’s Soul’ should keep fans ticking over nicely and is a good ‘stepping on’ point for people like me who have yet to read the bulk of Sanderson’s work. It’s wrapped up just a little too neatly but there’s plenty more to chew on if you want…
Eight and a Half out of Ten