Review: The Emperor’s Soul

Posted: March 1, 2013 by in Books We Love (5/5 single_star) Meta: Brandon Sanderson, Fantasy, Short Fiction

I’ve mentioned this before, but I absolutely love to see established authors tackle short fiction. Take an Epic Fantasy writer; can that person actually focus and write a self-contained short story, novelette or novella? You’d be surprised at how often they can’t. I’d suggest that writing a novel is a completely different skill-set than that of writing short fiction. So when I come across an author that can do BOTH well, I get pretty excited.

Brandon Sanderson is an established author. Love him or hate him (I think that on the whole, he is terrific) he’s a household name for those that read Fantasy. One of my biggest complaints about Sanderson’s work has been his wordiness. Lot’s of people standing around, doing nothing terribly important to the story. A while back I was at a signing for a different author and ran into Brandon. I asked if he had anything new coming out that I should be on the lookout for, and he told me he’d email me LEGION (Amazon) and THE EMPEROR’S SOUL (Amazon) the next day. I read LEGION, and found it quite entertaining. But it didn’t feel complete. It felt like a pilot to a TV series as opposed to a full story.

THE EMPEROR’S SOUL, however, is a complete story that reminded me of why I became such a big fan of his in the first place in reading ELANTRIS (Amazon). Ironically, this novella takes place in the same world as ELANTRIS, though you wouldn’t know that with a casual read.

SOUL follows Shai, a Forger who was caught in the act of trying to replace the Moon Scepter with a near identical creation of her own. That’s what Forgers do; replace real goods with fake, or turn inferior goods into ones that match those of higher quality. Shai is due to be executed for her crime when she is given an opportunity she can’t refuse.

Make a forgery of Emperor Ashravan’s soul.

Emperor Ashravan was injured in an attempted assassination, and his empire’s enemies will use this to their advantage if they find out. Shai has one hundred days to pull it off.

Emperor Ashravan was injured in an attempted assassination. Shai has one hundred days to create a forgery of him in THE EMPEROR'S SOUL.

In my opinion, THE EMPEROR’S SOUL is one of Brandon Sanderson’s best pieces of fiction. Period. The story is tight and focused without an ounce of fat. The dialog is crisp, and doesn’t meander as Brandon has been known to allow. Not only that, but completely absent is the overwrought wit that suffocated ALLOY OF LAW (EBR Review) and WARBREAKER (EBR Review). This is a serious story, and that seriousness lends itself into every facet of the narrative.

In a story about forging, the biggest question that is presented seems to be “What is art?” Shai’s only ally in this story is Gaotona, the Emperor’s chancellor. Gaotona is frequently confused as to why Shai would spend so much effort on creating a forgery as opposed to creating something new. The beauty of this novella is how Shai’s and Gaotona’s views on art (amongst other things) intersect and merge as the story progresses, causing each character to grow in ways they never could have individually. It was natural. It was perfect.

I am a firm believer that we as humans only truly grow and progress when faced by seemingly impossible tasks. I’ve witnessed this in my own life and in the lives of those closest to me. The moment when the average person overcomes that impossibility is perhaps a work of art itself. I think that this is where THE EMPEROR’S SOUL shines, in letting the readers experience the very real changes that Shai and  Gaotona go through.

On a more meta level, I can’t help but feel that maybe Brandon felt a little like Shai when he began completing The Wheel of Time. This novella felt very personal, and was made all the better for it.

One of the many criticisms I have of short fiction (including my own) is how they rarely seem to have a solid ending. They just kind of…stop. SOUL has a powerful ending that is uplifting and as near to perfect as you can get. I’m not going to spoil it (obviously), but I don’t think it could have ended any differently and retained the emotional impact that it had.

Brandon Sanderson’s THE EMPEROR’S SOUL is one of the best pieces of short fiction I have ever read. It will be on my Hugo Ballot, and it should be on yours as well. Go buy this novella. You will never regret it.

  • Recommended Age: 14+
  • Language: Nope
  • Violence: At the end we get some deliciously shocking violence that reminds us all that Sanderson knows how to writing action in a Fantasy setting
  • Sex: Nope

Go buy it. Now.


  • The Writer says:

    Read this around Thanksgiving last year, and I couldn't agree more. LEGION was fun, but incomplete (though I'd love to see that TV series). THE EMPEROR'S SOUL, however, is one of the finest pieces of short fiction I've ever read. Absolutely a stunning work, all the more so knowing Sanderson probably spent less than a month on it.

  • koshr says:

    this story was indeed very nice. do you know if he plans to do more with these characters?

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