Friday, October 05, 2012

“The Emperor’s Soul” by Brandon Sanderson (Tachyon)

Sanderson-EmperorsSoulA novel set in the Elantris world. Sort of…

The tale of a heretic thief who is the only hope for the survival of an empire.

Shai is a Forger, a foreigner who can flawlessly copy and re-create any item by rewriting its history with skillful magic. Though condemned to death after trying to steal the emperor’s scepter, she is given one opportunity to save herself. Despite the fact that 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 from the attack of assassins.

Delving 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 her forgery is as much artistry as it is deception.

Skillfully deducing the machinations of her captors, Shai needs a perfect plan to escape. The fate of the kingdom lies in one impossible task. Is it possible to create a forgery of a soul so convincing that it is better than the soul itself?

As an introduction to Sanderson’s writing, this is a pretty good place to start. I’d never read anything by the author before this (despite picking up all of his novels over the course of a couple years). The novella is supposedly set in the same world as his Elantris novel, although Peter Ahlstrom (Mr. Sanderson’s assistant) assured me that it was only marginally connected. I enjoyed reading the story, and it’s an interesting introduction to and examination of the magic system the author’s created – the stamps and Forging are fascinating, and this was an enjoyable read.

The Emperor’s Soul is an intriguing story, one that gives us a quick introductory course into Forging and the inner workings of power in this state. All of it takes place in the microcosm of the Imperial Palace, from the perspective of Shai, who has been captured, incarcerated and effectively blackmailed to complete a hitherto-believed impossible task. It’s not an exhaustive introduction, as there were still plenty of questions left at the end, and I did find myself wanting to know a great deal more about the world and its various peoples.

Shai forms a bond with the Emperor’s oldest companion and advisor, Gaotona, a man who doesn’t find Forging quite as abhorrent as the other nobles and House elites (although, his interest only goes so far as him wishing to understand what he’s dealing with, rather than actually attempting the practice personally – to the end, he still believes Forging is an abomination).

I don’t want to get too much into the story and what happens, as that might make reading it redundant (it’s not even 200 pages long), but I thought Sanderson did a great job of fleshing out the world, giving us a big enough picture to get a feel for the society. I also liked the genesis of the Forging and stamps – having lived in Japan for a year, it was nice to read something that was recognisably a fantastical twist and adaptation of an actual practice from the Far East.

That being said, and this is more a complaint about Western writers in general who look to the East for inspiration, this world felt very familiar. I’ve found that authors from the US and UK (particularly) tend to borrow the same things from Chinese, Japanese, Korean culture and history. This has a tendency to make novels that draw inspiration from Asia feel very similar. Nevertheless, the magic system contained herein is unique and very well written and one gets the sense that Sanderson had it fully-formed before he started crafting this story. I’d certainly be interested in reading more fiction featuring this magic, this culture, and even some of these characters.

Sanderson writes fluid prose, and avoids clich├ęd sentences or dialogue. It’s no wonder he’s been so successful, really. That being said, given his penchant for writing Big Book Fantasy – his ability to produce near- or over-one-thousand-page novels each year is very impressive – in The Emperor’s Soul it’s almost as if he didn’t have enough space to flesh out a longer tale. It makes the novella feel like a single vignette or long Part of a larger novel.

Overall, then, it’s a good introduction to the author’s work, and has certainly made me interested in reading some of Sanderson’s longer fiction. I’ll either start with Elantris or the Mistborn series, depending on free time and whether or not I can make a sufficient dent in the once-again tottering TBR mountain.

If you’ve wanted to give Brandon Sanderson’s writing a try, but have been given pause by the sheer size of his novels, I highly recommend you track this novella down. I enjoyed this quite a bit.

13 comments:

  1. Good to know that this is good, I'll pick it up soon along with 'Legion' if I can. I've got the Mistborn Trilogy, and Elantris on my shelves and have read all of the above but Hero of Ages, and have loved them all. And The Final Empire is worth the effort - it's one of my top 5 favourite Fantasy Novels (Alongside A Game of Thrones, David Gemmell's Legend, and the last one is a tie between some of Jim Butcher's Dresden Files novels, the actual choice depending on what mood I'm in).

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    1. Oops. Forgot to add Brent Weeks' Way of Shadows.

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    2. Tsk-Tsk. How could you forget Weeks? ;)

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  2. I recently read the Mistborn Trilogy and I can thoroughly recommend it. It was my introduction to Mr Sanderson and I will now plough through the rest of his work. Warbreaker was almost as good, but not as richly detailed. He has a talent for writing interesting, believable characters and the most amazing magic systems. :)

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    1. That certainly seems to be the consensus - I've picked almost all his books for Kindle, but either forget I have them (a real problem with eBooks), or get distracted by something new...

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  3. It does sound interesting... Although by far and away my favorite of Brandon Sanderson's books so far is "The Way of Kings" (both 'parts', which I thought outstanding.)

    In terms of your observations about Asian culture & society as picked up through western SFF, I would be interested in a post expanding on that, ie what the commonly picked up elements are in your opinion and what is missed.

    One of my favorites with an 'eastern' flavor, although it is not obviously any one culture, is CJ Cherryh's "The Paladin" but am not sure if it is still available. (Fortunately though, I have a copy 'of my very own.' ;-) )

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    1. I've never read anything by Cherryh. I'll have to check it out.

      I could expand on the Westerners-borrowing-from-Asian-Cultures theme. I'm not sure I'm the best person to do it, but it's certainly something I've noticed after living in Asia and then coming back to the West (Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Japan). There are aesthetic themes and specific... 'elements', I guess, that have become slightly cliche. That's not to say they're interesting, just that they all seem to be rather standard. It's a reason I struggled with a novel idea I've been working on for years. I don't want it to be typical, but then I'm looking at a different time-period (18th-19th Century).

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    2. "Never read Cherryh!" Mimes shock, horror ... honestly though, books like Downbelow Station , Cyteen & the "Morgaine" books are classic SFF, and for me, Downbelow Station would be a defining work in the SF oeuvre.

      I think if you've lived in those countries as an adult it would give you more perspective than say someone like me who lived in Singapore as a young kid (ie v much a "child's eye" view) and since then has only "passed through."

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    3. I shall try to get Downbelow Station very soon, then. :)
      I loved Singapore. We weren't there for very long, but we visited a lot when we were in Malaysia, too. Probably my favorite Asian country, though Thailand will always have special place, given I was born there.

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  4. It's strange. I listen to Brandon Sanderson every week on his Writing Excuses podcast, and he's very good at it, along with his partners. After so many hours of listening to him, I'd love to read something by him, but I can't get into magic systems and epic fantasy, and even if I did, I'd be hesitant to wade into a thousand-page book by anyone, except maybe Stephen King. This one sound like a great intro to his work, like you said, but I just can't get into the subject he writes about.

    RG

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    1. That's fair. Epic fantasy isn't for everyone. This, however, is a pretty narrow-focus on what would, I imagine, be just a small section of one of his larger books.

      It's an interesting story, and the magic system is pretty well done, especially if you know what influenced it (if you can't spot it, there's an author's note at the end).

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  5. The Emperor's Soul was my first Sanderson, and i thought it was an excellent introduction to his work. I'll probably give Elantris a try next, especially since it takes place in the same world. I loved the magic system in The Emperor's Soul, the stamping, the knowing everything about the item to be able to manipulate or recreate it, you can't just snap your fingers to have something magical happen, you've got to work for it. And for this magic system, I loved Sanderson's note at the end about it.

    I don't mind that some Asian inspired elements come up often in non-western fantasy, the same European elements come up over and over again too - royalty, knights, the Church, etc. So for me, that's OK.

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    1. I don't mind Asian influences, just that sometimes the stuff that's drawn on isn't particularly inspired. Here, the magic system obviously is, but some of the societal bits & pieces felt a little "Seen that before."

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