Brandon Sanderson really, really likes working up magic systems. Pick up any of his works and you’re in for a detailed description of how precisely magic in that world works, often with its most intricate minutiae explored. As such, it’s not a surprise to find that a significant chunk of The Emperor’s Soul is taken up with the description of how that world’s magical Forging system works. That’s not to say it’s not an interesting system or a unique approach to magic, but rather that generally, with Sanderson’s high fantasy, the customer knows what they’re getting into ahead of time.
What is surprising this time, however, is the length of the story. Best known for Wheel of Time-sized doorstops, Sanderson here limits himself to under 200 pages. It’s a smart move; the limited space reins in some of his tendencies toward slow plotting and excess, and instead drives the the action of what’s really a cleverly disguised character study forward.
The main character, Shai, is a Forger of rare talent, which is also her problem. She’s been caught stealing a priceless work of art inside the Imperial Palace by means of her magic, and that should mean death. However, it seems the Emperor’s inner circle has a problem of their own: someone tried to kill the Emperor, leaving him in a coma. If they don’t find a way to bring him around, then they’re likely to get deposed or liquidated in the inevitable political struggle to follow the news that the Emperor’s a vegetable. Shai’s got one chance to Forge a new personality for the comatose Emperor – essentially rebuilding his persona and so the wet clay of his reality can be continuously stamped with it. Do a good job, she’s told, and she’ll be rewarded. Fail, and she’ll be executed. She has 100 days.
But things aren’t that easy, and in addition to recreating the Emperor’s personality from scratch Shai must plan and prepare her escape, dodge the efforts of one of the Emperor’s advisors to quietly remove her, and fence verbally with Gaotona, the old advisor who’s alternately her watchdog, her guinea pig, and her conscience.
The suspense is not whether Shai’s going to pull it off. An impossible task under an impossible deadline with looming death threats? Of course she’ll pull it off. The tension and the artistry is in how, and in how much she and Gaotona are going to rewrite each other psychologically rather than magically as their stately dance progresses. The answer there is more than either would like, but perhaps as much as each other needs. The result is an emotionally satisfying conclusion, even if the action feels a bit rushed.
The book closes with a short note from the author on worldbuilding, with comments on both the trip that inspired the book and why it’s slotted into the continuity for his previous novel Elantris (similarity of magic systems, natch). It’s a useful and interesting insight into the author’s thought processes on how he transmuted the inspiration of a museum visit into the book, and a nice closer to what is a relatively brief but enjoyable read.