Brandon Sanderson’s writing habits are wonderfully strange. For one, he authors and manages a handful of series simultaneously, ranging from children’s books to 1000 page epic fantasy doorstoppers. And he generally releases 2-3 novels a year. But what’s more astounding to me is his lack of short fiction. In fact, for a writer as prolific as he is, Sanderson is unique in that he’s written more unpublished full-length novels than he has short stories, and of the work he has published, less than a handful are novellas or shorter. And when you consider the stories he likes to tell and a bit of his history, it does make sense. He was raised on Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, a series that seemingly doesn’t have an end (until Sanderson gave it one).
So it’s a relief to find that his novella, The Emperor’s Soul, is such a well-knit short adventure. It still feels very much like the imaginative and fantastical Sanderson that you’re accustomed to reading, but this story ties up all its loose ends! Well. Mostly. There were several moments during the course of my read where I paused to reflect on the fact that this story could have been taken in the usual Sanderson route by being turned into a trilogy of trilogies, with multiple POV’s, and the like… but the fact that Sanderson chose to keep it simple, one point of view, one narrative with only small branches that meet at the end, is something I give the guy props for.
And the story pays off accordingly. One thing to note about the nature of short stories (or novellas) vs books in series, is that short stories generally tend to lean towards teaching their characters a single moral or lesson over the course of their arc. That idea isn’t lost with The Emperor’s Soul.
We follow Shai, a young woman who happens to be one of the best Forgers in the world, meaning she can use Soulstamping – an ability that allows her to rewrite the history of objects to change their present shape or function. Forgers like herself are generally outlaws, and she gets caught in the process of leaving behind a replica painting she created. She is brought in for questioning, and is tasked with the impossible task of Forging the emperor’s soul, as the emperor had been dealt permanent brain damage. She must complete the task in a fraction of the time she actually needs, or else her life and the entire Empire may crumble.
One excellent feature to note for fans of Brandon Sanderson’s work is that most of his stories actually take place in the same universe, known as the Cosmere. This includes, but isn’t limited to, the Stormlight Archive series, The Mistborn series, Elantris, and Warbreaker. Though these books and series don’t always share the same world as each other, they often share similar logic in terms of magic systems and plains of existence. We learn in The Emperor’s Soul (which niftily takes place on the same world as Elantris) that the three plains are the Physical, the Cognitive, and the Spiritual. This is better explored in The Stormlight Archive, but it’s interesting to see how the people of another world within a shared universe make use of this logic.
The Emperor’s Soul is a delightful read, which ends in a more-or-less predictable bang. Although I love that this is a close-ended tale, I wish I could spend more time with the character’s. In a way, the work of art Shai creates reminds me of the intricately polished and endlessly thought-out universe that Sanderson is slowly unfolding. I know that wasn’t his plan in writing this short piece, but it’s oddly fitting. I hope you get to read this, fan of his work or no.