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.
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.)