Sunday, December 30, 2012

Emperor's Soul

Brandon Sanderson's The Emperor's Soul is a slim but engrossing fantasy novella keyed on a unique magic system involving stamps. Forgers can rewrite an object's past, transforming a simple vase into an ornate one instead.  Resealers can heal the body to its former health, while Bloodsealers can track people through their blood. 

Shai is a Forger, a con artist and thief. When Shai is caught in the act, she is offered an opportunity, instead of execution. Emperor Ashravan has been assassinated. While the resealers can heal his physical body, they cannot recover his mind. Shai is charged with the impossible task of Forging a new soul for the Emperor. Confined in a small room, Shai works against the clock to create the unthinkable all the while challenged and bribed by advisers that want to maintain their political status.

 If one was gifted with artistic talent, why would one choose the life of art of forgery and crime instead?  What is the nature of the soul and do all objects have them? Is the best way to fool someone through honesty? Those are some of the questions raised by Emperor's Soul. 

Since it's a short novella, we don't delve too heavily into Shai's backstory. For a female character, it's a relief to have such an uncomplicated story. No one forced Shai into this life. She willingly sought out of the rigorous Forgery apprenticeship. She is calculating and quick to size up an opportunity. She's a thief and an unrepentant one. She loves the thrill of the life. But that she's created the ultimate out for herself in the form of that "normal" Essence Mark suggests she has considered another quieter life. Could she ever go through with it? Forgery and magic seem ingrained in her soul and psyche. Once in that life, it'd be hard to leave.

Gaotona is an Arbiter, a loyal advisor to Emperor Ashravan. He is presented as the disapproving grandfather type, both to Ashravan and Shai. He expects better of people.  He sees true talent and artistry in what Shai does. He cannot understand why she wastes that as a Forgery. But his other role provides a stronger counterpoint to Shai. Forgery is seen as a kind of blasphemy and abomination. Gaotona's struggle to understand how Forgery works allows Sanderson to show readers the intricacies of his magic system, how it works and how it can't. His fellow arbiter Frava doesn't want to understand how it works; she's quite willing to eliminate Shai at the first opportunity if she can still achieve her ends.

Showing how Forgery works also allows the more intriguing questions about the soul. The work to rebuild Ashravan's soul is long and arduous, fraught with decisions. Why does someone like a certain color? Why would someone want to be an Emperor? But it's not just people. Even inanimate objects receive attention, providing some of the liveliest debates. Do objects have souls? How do they regard themselves? While locked in her room, Shai Forges her surroundings into more comfortable ones. She isn't changing their nature as much as allowing them to shine. Instead of being allowed to crumble, an object is Forged to be found and cared for properly. Her jailers see it as frivolous waste of precious time, but it also points out the differences in Shai's attitudes compared to them. They'd never considered the potential in these artifacts until she's Forged them. 

In a way, Emperor's Soul reads very much like a bottle episode, because the majority of the novella takes place in the confines of Shai's room. People come and go, but Shai is stuck inside. Shai still shows how she can still manipulate people. She uncovers their weaknesses and secrets, even how to ultimately win over Gaotona in her escape. 

Sanderson talks about the writing of the novella in the Writing Excuses podcast. The podcast includes some mild spoilers on some plot points. The biggest question mark for me was the scene near the end where Shai uses the Essence Marks to escape. That action scene felt very strange after pages of this scholarly and thoughtful fantasy story. What annoyed me a little was the stereotypical "every Asian character is a martial artist" issue. But I agreed in principle with Sanderson that with his setup, her escape could not be an easy one. I do wish Shai could have managed it in some other way, but it's a minor quibble.

Overall I enjoyed Brandon Sanderson's Emperor's Soul. I liked the unusual magic system and the questions it raised about art and the soul. Shai was a likeable character and I was rooting for her throughout. I'm still plowing through Elantris, so this was the first of Sanderson's works I've finished.

(Emperor's Soul is available as a trade paperback from Tachyon Publications and also as an ebook or Audible audiobook.)

Saturday, December 29, 2012

New Year, New Book Challenges

So 2012 is nearly over and it's time to reflect on the year. I've really enjoyed having these challenges/read-a-longs to nudge me into reading things I wouldn't ordinarily read. Or maybe get around to that pile. I set out to read a bit more and surprised myself by doing just that. I signed up for Goodreads' Reading Challenge to read 30 books and managed to read 42! I also successfully climbed Pike's Peak for the 2012 Mt TBR Reading Challenge but couldn't quite move on to Mt Vancouver. So of course for this year's challenge I signed up for the Mt Blanc level of 24 books, just to challenge myself further. I don't have a list for that... yet.

I also vowed to spread my reading wings out a little and read some classics. The Classics Club challenge is perfect for that, because you can set up a list to tackle, but you have five years to finish. I spent some time thinking about these. Some are ones I've always meant to read and some I've always felt bad about not reading... it'll be interesting to see how far I get into this challenge. I'm already signed up for Unputdownables' Persuasion Read-a-long to start me off.

So here is my list:

1    Bram Stoker - Dracula
2    Henry James - Portrait of a Lady
3    Edith Wharton - House of Mirth
4    Edith Wharton - Age of Innocence
5    Edith Wharton - The Buccaneers
6    Charlotte Brontë - Jane Eyre
7    Charlotte Brontë - Villette
8    Edmund Spenser - The Faerie Queene
9    Virgil - Aeneid
10    Homer - The Iliad
11    Homer - The Odyssey
12    Emily Brontë - Wuthering Heights
13    Pierre Choderlos de Laclos - Les Liaisons Dangereuses
14    Jules Verne - Around the World in Eighty Days
15    Charles Dickens - Bleak House
16    Mary Shelley - Frankenstein
17    Wilkie Collins - The Moonstone
18    Wilkie Collins - The Woman in White
19    Jane Austen - Pride and Prejudice
20    Jane Austen - Mansfield Park
21    Jane Austen - Northanger Abbey
22    Jane Austen - Persuasion
23    Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - Complete Sherlock Holmes
24    Sir Thomas Malory - Morte D’Arthur
25    JRR Tolkien - The Hobbit
26    Elizabeth Gaskell - Wives and Daughters
27    Elizabeth Gaskell - North and South
28    Daphne Du Maurier - Rebecca
29    L. Frank Baum - Wonderful Wizard of Oz
30    Lewis Carroll - Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
31    Lewis Carroll - Through the Looking Glass
32    TH White - Sword in the Stone
33    Flappers and Philosophers - F Scott Fitzgerald
34    William Butler Yeats - Complete Poems
35    Alfred Lord Tennyson - Idylls of the King
36    Chretien de Troyes - Arthurian Romances
37    Leo Tolstoy - War and Peace
38    Leo Tolstoy - Anna Karenina
39    Thomas Hardy - Return of the Native
40    HG Wells - Invisible Man
41    John Milton - Paradise Lost
42    Arabian Nights
43    Oscar Wilde – The Picture of Dorian Gray
44    Herodotus - Histories
45    Thucydides - History of the Peloponnesian War
46    Hesiod – Works and Days and Theogeny
47    Emily Dickinson - Complete Poems
48    Edgar Rice Burroughs - John Carter of Mars
49    Anthony Hope - The Prisoner of Zenda
50    Anthony Hope - Rupert of Hentzau
51    Niccolo Machiavelli - The Prince
52    Charles Dickens - A Christmas Carol

Goal for completion date: January 2018

Bolded books have been finished.