Sunday, November 12, 2023

The Emperor's Soul

The Emperor's Soul
by Brandon Sanderson
Recommended Ages: 13+

Shai has been caught attempting to steal the emperor's scepter from his own palace, and as a Forger – a sort of magician who uses hand-carved stamps and seals to alter the history of objects, effectively creating forgeries that are almost impossible to detect – she offends the sensibilities of a certain Gaotona, one of the emperor's close advisers. Either way, her life is pretty much forfeit. But now, Emperor Ashravan has just barely survived an assassination attempt with his body, but not his mind, intact. His party fears that the opposition, which is most likely behind the attempt on his life, will seize power unless they can produce a walking, talking, seemingly living emperor by the end of his 100-day mourning period (because his wife didn't survive the attack). Somewhat like making a deal with the devil, they offer Shai a way out of her death sentence. She just has to do the impossible – forging a new soul for the emperor, enabling his vacant body to pass as the real Ashravan.

Shai knows better than to expect the people on the other end of the deal to keep their promises. She expects the guard who wants nothing more than to execute her to get his wish before she has a chance to complete her assignment. And to start, she isn't sure it's even possible. But she agrees to do it and, before she knows it, she has developed a keen interest in seeing it through. Making a new soul that will actually stick, at least for one day at a time, will be tricky, though. She has to learn everything she can possibly know about Ashravan the man, or his body will reject the seal as soon as she stamps it on. She has to test each component of this complex work of forgery on no less unwilling a subject than Gaotona himself. And meanwhile, she has to plan an escape against the day that her executioner is finally granted his wish.

This brief, fast-paced tale explores a type of magic like and unlike any I've seen before. There are precedents for it in the works of Brandon Sanderson, but only in a nuance here and a detail there. The idea that you could carve what I take to be essentially Chinese charcters into a small stone, ink it and stamp it on something, and the object stamped (even if only a wall, a table or a piece of canvas) could rewrite its own history and transform itself into something quite different if it consents to do so – there's a lot in there to think about. It's a bit animistic, so an Occult Content Advisory is fair, I think. But there's ultimately something beautiful and emotionally touching about Shai's growth, and her ongoing philosophical argument with Gaotona, and how they change each other as the dilemma of What To Do About Ashravan unfolds. Verily, reader, my cheeks were moist with tears by the end.

This review is based on an audiobook narrated by Angela Lin, which I listened to during a long road trip last week. It was only four CDs long but it left the impression of a full-sized book, which no doubt has something to do with the fact that the novella won a Hugo Award. Brandon Sanderson, of course, is the author of whom I have written (in a newspaper column) that he can do no wrong. His novels include Elantris, the now seven-volume "Mistborn" cycle, the six-book "Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians" series, four "Stormlight Archive" novels plus two novellas, two "Infinity Blade" books, three "Legion" books, three-and-a-half "Reckoners" novels, Four-ish "Skyward" novels with a sequel trilogy co-authored by Janci Patterson, four "Secret Projects" including Tress of the Emerald Sea, the last three novels (plus two novellas) in Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" cycle, and several other books. I thought I had read nearly everything by him but, my goodness, I now find that I'm way behind!

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