A review by Nalini Haynes
★★★★☆ four out of five stars
The Emperor’s Soul is a novella paired with Legion in Gollancz’s review copy.
Shai is a Forger: she creates Oriental-style stamps that mystically change objects from, for example, a neglected desk to a beautiful splinter-free workspace. Facing execution, Shai is blackmailed into creating a stamp to provide the brain-damaged Emperor with a soul.
Once transferred to her new cell, possibly the dingiest room in the palace, Shai is imprisoned with human guards then by magical means. Determined to escape, Shai begins work on her magnum opus.
The story was well-paced and engaging while curiosity led me on: would Shai complete the soul-Forging? Would she be executed? What are her motives? Is she sabotaging Gaotona, her supervisor and experimental soul-stamping subject?
Gaotona and Shai’s conflict is a vehicle for their discussion of the philosophy underlying definitions of art.
Shai ponders aspects of personality and character development while building a ‘soul’ for the Emperor.
Brandon Sanderson creates believable yet conflicting religious systems in his worlds. Shai’s Forging and Shai’s captives’ religion, sun worship, are two good examples although I’m not a fan of the third ‘belief system’ and its proponent.
The Emperor’s Soul uses the ‘magical disabled person’ trope and the ‘evil albino’ trope. The Bloodsealer whose magic snares Shai with an alarm and tracking system is described as having ‘milky white skin and red eyes’ (p. 102). Thus he is an albino-type although human albinos do not naturally have red eyes (their eyes only appear red in flash photography). The Bloodsealer uses an ‘abomination’ — blood magic — to imprison Shai. He cuts Shai’s arms daily so he can use her fresh blood to seal the door. The Bloodsealer also uses animated skeletons like combination bloodhounds and enforcers.
Once the Bloodsealer’s appearance was defined, little mention was made of it. Although the Bloodsealer was a key character he wasn’t a major character in this novella, which I felt to be a redeeming feature.
The Emperor’s Soul is an engaging novella incorporating those tasty onion layers that I love although the evil albino trope and the magical disabled person trope were eminently forgettable. Overall, I recommend The Emperor’s Soul.