After trying Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson and disliking it, I was sure he wasn’t the author for me, despite the fact that many I know enjoy and are fans of his work. Fortunately, I decided to take another chance on Sanderson, remembering that even the authors I do enjoy always have at least a couple of stories that I just don’t like. The Emperor’s Soul was a definite win for me, and Sanderson’s simple way of writing really shines with a shorter story like this that quickly digs into various themes and ideas.
The Emperor’s Soul could easily be either fantasy or sci-fi, as clearly as the world is drawn in some ways, it’s purposefully or necessarily vague in others, and this empire could be set way back in time or far in the future. Either way, the characters and plot would still work. The magic and culture of the world in the book are drawn largely from Asian culture, and I personally thought of China because I lived there for a time and I have a signature chop of my own that I had carved with my Chinese name on it. Sometimes I stamp it on letters, but rarely do I write letters anymore. This story takes these chops, or stamps, to a new level, making them tools of magic that can change everything about an object or person. The magician, or rather, craftsmen, who do this are called forgers. Like art forgers, rarely are they creating something new, rather they are making an alternate version of something that already exists. Not so different from actual art, when considering the painting of a flower could also be called a forgery of an actual flower.
Stamping and forgery aside, the plot of the short novel–it’s less than 200 pages–is a cat and mouse game. Shai is caught in an act of thievery and must use all her skill and wits to complete the task her captors have assigned her and also escape in one hundred days. Gaotana, a government advisor, befriends Shai and also watches her work closely. Both characters know they are trying to manipulate the other person. As a shorter story, this plot was a good choice, as is the limited time, and limited setting of just a few rooms.
The magic in this world is more like a craft or a field of art. It is something that forgers have a gift for, but something they also must study. Shai states that anyone can learn how to forge the stamp, and although this does appear true, it is apparent that one must have an instinct and skill with research in order to be successful. The Heritage Faction that currently rules the empire considers forging an abomination, yet uses it often to preserve the heritage of past cultures, making junky clay pots into Ming vases, etc. Shai is right to wrinkle her nose at this hypocrisy. Is forging an abomination or is it not? The distinct rules of forging make it easy to understand, and although there’s quite a bit of telling involved, it’s not boring, it’s fascinating.
Forging a new soul for a person isn’t done, shouldn’t be done, and can’t really be done, but that is the task that the Heritage Faction has for Shai. With little other choice, she agrees to do it and soon finds herself relishing the nearly impossible task while simultaneously planning her escape. Here is where the true artistry if forging is showcased, for as Shai works, she researches every little detail about this person, much the way a biographer might study someone whose story they would like to tell. In the process, she also forges other things, turning her hovel-like room into something grand, impressing Gaotana, who despite being suspicious of forging, endeavors to learn what he can of it. This kind of forging is contrasted as “good” against another called blood sealing, in which a person’s blood is used to stamp and imprison them or hunt them down with skeleton monsters. The picture is, of course, life versus death.
What is art? That is a central question posed in the book, mostly by Gaotana. Shai already knows the answer because she’s in the business of creating art. Interestingly, Sanderson chose to make her an actual art forger as well, which is the way in which she is first introduced to both Gaotana and the reader. He is impressed by her forged painting, and only impressed with her stamp forging much later on when he has more knowledge about it. The question then becomes, what is an artist? Initially Gaotana thinks that Shai is wasting her talents, that she could be a great painter, then he sees how great a stamp forger she is and surely thinks her talents on that score are also being wasted. Interesting, again, because to his faction stamping is supposed to be an abomination.
Art is thought of, mostly by Gaotana, as something precious, not to be destroyed no matter what. It is something for future generations to benefit from, but he learns from Shai that sometimes it is necessary to destroy even the best art. From Shai’s perspective, it is clear that although she may be a primo painter, she doesn’t consider that her art. Forging the stamps is her art and she is a master at that. This forging of a soul is her best and definitive piece and it becomes so important to her that she risks losing her chance at escape to complete it. Her bond with Gaotana is such that she leaves the blueprints in his hands. Only he will know and marvel at the great piece of art that she’s forged. Marvel he does.
In the real world, the idea of forging or rewriting another’s soul sounds evil. In this world, it can only be done by those who know people well. This is the true artistry of Shai, knowing people. She has a natural talent that on some level just cannot be learned, much like a musical prodigy has a talent for music that studying music can’t quite match. In this story, the soul she must rewrite is someone who is otherwise gone. He in essence has no soul. Subtle connection is made between Shai’s gift at forging and also her faith. She prays to the Unknown God, which struck me as a reference to the Christian God, the Creator of the World. Paul refers to the Greeks’ worship of the Unknown God in Acts, and says, well, let me tell you about him. I’m not sure if that was the intended reference or not, but I liked it. I think that all art and craftsmanship and our desire to create and build things is much due to our Creator. He likes to create things and He made us in His image: We also like to create things, and there’s something fulfilling about working hard with all one’s skills and talents to make a work that truly reflects the beauty, love, and hope that God built into the world. It is satisfying, and is a reflection of the Creator.
The story doesn’t really tell us whether what Shai did in forging a soul was ultimately right or wrong. A wrong way of doing it was addressed, but that wrong way the forger ultimately dismissed. It is also unclear just how enduring this stamp Shai made will be, and if it will stand up to the test of time. In a way, she’s been playing God, but in another way, she’s healed a man. I really like the different ideas, questions, and possibilities in this story. It’s a story that makes one think about things and gives answers that fit into the story world, but leaves the real world implications and answers for the reader to ponder.
Did I mentioned I really like this book? The simple, almost mundane writing was perfect here, it really let the themes and ideas shine for themselves. It was vastly better than the flowery, longwinded, and tedious writing in The Goblin Emperor. Sometimes it’s better to simply be a storyteller instead of a Writer. I will definitely check out more of Sanderson’s books, but if this is the only one that resonates with me, that’s ok.
One last thing: On some level Shai is a thief and a con artist. Although she perhaps only learns how to invoke a better con job throughout this story, she learns from Gaotana that the best way to manipulate a person is with sincerity. Sincerity cannot be faked, or it wouldn’t be sincerity; it is a “stamp” that will stick and takes time to both implement and to master. Is sincerity necessary to make great art? In this story, yes. In the real world, it depends. There’s probably lots of things considered great art out there that the artist just made for money or without much thought. The implication in the story, though, is that a truly great artist doesn’t operate that way. This is why Shai cares little for painting and much for forging. Forging is where she puts all her effort and thought. Manipulating with sincerity. It’s just another way of saying, be yourself, everyone else is already taken.
Thursday, time allowing, I plan to have a review up of the Kdrama Extra-ordinary You, and the week after that something to say about the first three Narnia books. Enjoying the drama Doom at Your Service so far, and I’m trying out an ok Japanese drama called One Page Love. As for summer reading, my list changes by the day. I definitely plan to continue with the Narnia books and also continue with The Bowers Files serial killer series. Beyond that, much depends on whether I delve into my still-have-to-read bookshelves or visit the library frequently. Have a great week, everyone, and happy reading!