While most fantasy authors seem bent on extending their series for as long as readers will buy them, Elantris and Warbreaker author Brandon Sanderson has always kept his books finite. Now, between the commissioned volumes drawing Robert Jordan’s Wheel Of Time series to a close, he’s taken a break to pen The Emperor’s Soul, a novella that shows off his impressive ability to build worlds and characters, then leave them behind.
The story follows Shai, a thief offered a stay of execution if she will help the ruling faction of a powerful empire stay in control. An assassination attempt has left the emperor brain-dead, and Shai’s captors need her skills at forging to rewrite his soul. The novel takes place almost entirely in a single room as Shai works, trying to piece together the life of a man she’s never met. She serves as a mouthpiece for some insightful musings on the artistic drive as she’s torn between preserving her life from the machinations of the imperial ministers, and finishing a project she believes could be her greatest masterpiece.
Sanderson is a pro at creating magic systems, and soul-forging is one of his more intriguing. It lets Shai rewrite the history of an object, a person, or even herself into something else that could be plausible, given what she knows about it. A once fine but now splintered table can be restored to beauty if its past is edited so it received care, while a person could be transformed to have the appearance and mindset of a beggar if their past could have gone poorly.
That system is far more developed than any of the characters. The emperor comes across as the most nuanced, laid out in all his human flaws and strengths through Shai’s studies, but the supporting cast is largely defined by simple motivations. The plot also plays out predictably, with none of the dramatic twists found in many of Sanderson’s novels.
But the tale is never dull. It’s easy to rush through the chapters, which are spaced out by days and weeks of Shai’s captivity as she marches toward her project deadline and the book’s conclusion. A novella is probably the best way the story idea could be executed, but as with so much of Sanderson’s work, it’s easy to want more when it’s over.