Book Review: The Emperor's Soul
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Brandon Sanderson has written a huge number of fantasy books and for the most part they have been hugely popular. He was even tapped to finish the final book of the much beloved Wheel of Time series which, predictably, blossomed into a final trilogy of books. If there is one thing that you need to know about Brandon Sanderson it is this, he loves his magic systems. His best known work, the Mistborn series actually featured three separate magic systems that all interacted in different ways. To the exclusion of all else, his magic systems are lavished with love and attention.
It is no wonder then that the focus of The Emperor's Soul is not the main character Shai, the corrupt imperial agents that she is held prisoner by or even the Emperor who's history and soul she is forced to study and manufacture. It is the system of magic by which she creates a new soul for someone who has been rendered catatonic by traumatic head injury. Sanderson completely sidesteps the subtext that mentally impaired people are soul-less by also stating that within his world everything has a soul, a Platonic theory of forms kind of logic, whereby everything has an inherent magical memory of what it is and what it could have been if history had gone a different way. These memories or “souls” are manipulated by forgers, to change the object itself. With the most illegal and dangerous form of this being a manipulation of personal history. The purpose for which our anti-heroic heroine is employed.
As a fantasy story it is very enjoyable. The writing is to the same reasonable standard as all of Sanderson's work, not remarkable but very easy to read and absorb. The setting and world building is ably handled, giving you enough detail and context to understand who the various nationalities and factions are. But for a book that is all about the characters, the true essence of characters as they are created from various influences and pressures, it falls a little short.
Brandon Sanderson's usual fare are big stories, many characters, many locations, high octane plots, they are enjoyable, but they need their full word count just to keep track of everything. That was not the case with The Emperor's Soul, about ninety percent of the story takes place in a single room, the characters are limited to the people visiting the prisoner there and while the protagonist is framed as an expert con-artist and manipulator she performs all of those manipulations out of sight of the reader. There was no reason that the philosophical underpinnings of this world could not be examined beyond a cursory shrug at “heathen beliefs,” the title's hints at the fable of the emperor's new clothes and the faint hints of Platonic philosophy used exclusively to explain away the magic system.
This book was Sanderson's opportunity to go beneath the surface of one of his marvellous worlds and say something about the real one but each time he gets close he swerves at the last moment. It is perfectly functional and if you enjoy his other work you are sure to love it but for a book all about the layers of construction involved in a person's history and personality it is surprisingly shallow.