The Emperor’s Soul is Brandon Sanderson’s Hugo Award-winning novella inspired by his visit to the National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan. Sanderson was duly impressed by the hundreds of thousands of artifacts on display, covering eight thousand years of Chinese history, and he was particularly drawn to the red stamps used by Chinese artists, scholars, and nobility. Sanderson developed a magic system based on these red stamps, giving them the ability to alter an object’s history, thereby recasting its future. With this, the central idea for The Emperor’s Soul was born.
The Emperor’s Soul takes place in the Rose Empire on the same world as his epic fantasy novel, Elantris. Although The Emperor’s Soul connects to Sanderson’s greater Cosmere universe, it is a standalone story, and hence it is unnecessary to read any of his other work to understand and appreciate this novella.
At the beginning of The Emperor’s Soul, the young Emperor Ashravan is braindead after an assassination attempt which also claims the life of his beloved wife. The crime is apparently an inside job, committed by one of his corrupt council members vying for power.
Meanwhile, a young woman named Shai is imprisoned and facing execution for creating forgeries of both a famous painting and the Emperor’s scepter. Forgery is a magical art involving the carving and application of a soulstamp that captures the essence of an object and can make subtle alterations to its history. In the Rose Empire, forgery is considered to be an immoral and dangerous practice and is punishable by death.
Nevertheless, the Emperor’s advisors recognize Shai’s unmatched talent and give her one chance at freedom, which involves the greatest forgery of all: recreating the soul of the Emperor himself. Shai is given one hundred days to complete the forgery, the traditional grieving period for the Emperor to mourn the loss of his wife.
To achieve this nearly impossible task and prevent the fall of the Rose Empire, Shai must work closely with the Emperor’s most trusted advisor, the elderly Gaotona, who knows the Emperor better than anyone else. Gaotona does not approve of forgery but concedes that this is the only way to save his cherished Emperor.
Although The Emperor’s Soul is not an especially dark fantasy, grimdark lovers will appreciate the complex and opposing views on morality expressed by Shai and Gaotona during their thought-provoking discussions, and the respect that the two characters develop for each other over time.
I especially enjoyed the questions raised on the nature of art. Must art necessarily be original, or does the skill of forgery also constitute an artform? Is it possible for a forgery to improve upon the original work? As a master of forgery, can Shai herself be considered an artist?
Sanderson also raises important questions on the nature of the human soul. What exactly constitutes a soul? Can a soul be fully described and replicated? If yes, is the replica really the same person or simply a clone?
The Emperor’s Soul is also proof that you don’t need hundreds of pages to create a well-realized fantasy with compelling characters, a unique magic system, and thought-provoking questions on morality, art, politics, and the nature of human existence itself. Sanderson accomplishes all of this in a little over 100 pages, with a conclusion that leaves an enduring emotional impact on the reader. The Emperor’s Soul ranks among the best work by Brandon Sanderson over his incredibly prolific career.