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Literature / The Emperor's Soul

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The fate of an Empire, rests in the hands of a thief.

A novella by Brandon Sanderson set on Sel, the same planet as his first novel, Elantris.

Shai is a Forger, a foreigner who can flawlessly copy and re-create any item by rewriting its history with skillful magic. Though condemned to death after trying to steal the emperor's scepter, she is given one opportunity to save herself. Despite the fact that her skill as a Forger is considered an abomination by her captors, Shai will attempt to create a new soul for the emperor, who is almost dead from the attack of assassins.

Delving deeply into his life, she discovers Emperor Ashravan's truest nature—and the opportunity to exploit it. Her only possible ally is one who is truly loyal to the emperor, but councilor Gaotona must overcome his prejudices to understand that her forgery is as much artistry as it is deception.

Skillfully deducing the machinations of her captors, Shai needs a perfect plan to escape. The fate of the empire lies in one impossible task. Is it possible to create a forgery of a soul so convincing that it is better than the soul itself?

For other works in The 'Verse, see The Cosmere.

If you wish to get the book in physical form, it is part of a bundle with another Sanderson novel, Legion, and also included in the short story collection Arcanum Unbounded.

This work contains examples of:

  • And the Adventure Continues: Shai ends the novella leaving the royal city to find Hoid, the Imperial Fool, and get payback for his betrayal.
  • Arbitrary Skepticism: The official religion of the Rose Empire states that the sun that rises each day is one of 80 distinct yet identical suns (all equally worthy of worship), and yet they find the concept of the Physical, Cognitive, and Spiritual Realms to be "superstitions".
  • Assassination Attempt: The plot concerns an emperor made comatose by a partially-successful assassination.
  • Becoming the Mask:
    • Shai speculates that over enough time, repeatedly stamping Ashravan each day may eventually cause the artificial personality to become "imprinted" onto him, making the change permanent.
    • Shai's final Essence Mark is a variant of this. Her other stamps allow her to remember her true history, but if she ever used this one, it would completely erase her old memories. As far as she would know, the simple farm life it gives her would be the only life she ever had.
  • Berserk Button: When testing one early stamp, Shai suggests to Gaotona-as-Ashravan that it's a good thing his brother died; Gaotona is enraged at the insult. Shai notes that the reaction is probably too extreme.
  • Better Than New: The maxim of a good Forgery: improve slightly on the original, and people will often accept the fake because it is superior.
  • Bilingual Bonus: When Shai steals her forgery of the painting from Frava she leaves a Reo rune in its place. Readers of Elantris will recognize this rune as meaning Punishment or Retribution.
  • Blackmail: Frava assumes that Shai will use her knowledge of the Emperor's new state in this way once she finishes her work. However, as Gaotona accurately assumes, this is untrue, and Shai just wants to finish her job under the assumption of Doing It for the Art.invoked
  • Blood Magic: To prevent her from escaping a sample of Shai's blood is taken daily by a Bloodsealer. This blood is used in a special stamp on her door which will let the Bloodsealer know if she leaves the room and can then be used to track her.
  • Burn Baby Burn: The novella closes on Gaotona doing this to Shai's real notes on the linchpin soulstamp for the emperor after reading them to cover her tracks.
  • The Cameo: Hoid sort of appears: he is the Imperial Fool who betrayed Shai and got her thrown in prison. This is one of his most difficult cameos to spot as he neither has his name dropped nor actually shows up, meaning you have to figure it out by description or by Word of God.
  • Compliment Backfire: Shai tells Gaotona that she is impressed that he thinks like a Forger, and, despite his annoyance, that it was meant as a compliment.
  • Contrived Coincidence: What are the chances that the world's greatest forger is being held in the prison just as the world's most difficult forgery is needed? Subverted—the odds are probably quite high when Hoid is the one who got her arrested.
  • Corrupt Bureaucrat: Most arbiters, though only Frava is shown as this.
  • Covers Always Lie: Shai has spectacles and short straight hair, but the cover depicts her without either.
  • Cutlery Escape Aid: Shai has repurposed a fork into a carving tool for her rune magic. Her captors make her an offer before she puts her escape attempt into action, and she ends up becoming a Boxed Crook with access to proper tools.
  • Dem Bones: The skeletals the Bloodsealer makes. They even come with swords, at least one Dual Wielding.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Forging a soul is incredibly difficult, and requires extensive knowledge and research into how the person lived. Shai needed to train in martial arts for a short time to Forge a self who trained her whole life. It sounds like researching for writing a character, with higher stakes.
  • Doing It for the Art: In-Universe, Shai's justification for Forging. She could have easily made a cheap replica of the Emperor's soul and then escaped, but she did the whole thing legitimately because she couldn't bear to do it halfway. At the end, she takes a great risk in breaking into the Emperor's chambers when she could have escaped, because she just had to know that her stamp worked.
  • Driven to Suicide: Shai's fifth Essence Mark. If she ever uses it, it would completely erase her history as a Forger, meaning that Shai as she is would have committed suicide.
  • Economy Cast: There are only about 6 important characters and a handful of extras. There are a bunch of arbiters, but only Frava and Gaotona have speaking roles, representing opposite sides of the Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: Frava is incapable of understanding that Shai has no interest in blackmailing the empire to not expose her work, or altering the seal for her own personal gain. At the end of the story she's setting up to spend years examining the seal trying to find the hidden backdoors into Ashravan's psyche that don't actually exist, so that she can coopt them for her own use.
  • Experienced Protagonist: Shai is already The Ace—that's why she's called in for an Impossible Task.
  • Fake Memories: What Forging a soul does to someone. Even the best one wears off after about twenty-four hours.
  • Fantastic Fragility: Every Forgery has an innate weakness in the soulstamp itself. You can put the stamp somewhere out of the way, but it must be technically visible and will always be there if someone goes looking for it.
  • Fantastic Slurs: KuNuKam, meaning roughly a man who has an anus for a mouth.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: MaiPon is something like Korea to Jindo's China.
  • Fictional Painting: "Lily of the Spring Pond" is a famous masterpiece, painted by the great artist Han ShuXen for a woman he loved, eventually donated by her children to the Imperial Gallery, and finally stolen by the protagonist Wan ShaiLu. She actually burned it at the request of ShuXen, who reviled the Rose Empire and could not bear to have his work displayed in the palace.
  • Functional Magic: As with most of Sanderson's works, the rules of magic are laid out pretty well.
  • Geometric Magic: Forger stamps, including Bloodsealers and resealers.
  • Glamour Failure: Shai mentions that, since a soulstamp must be exposed and visible to work, no Forgery made using soulstamps can ever be perfect. This is one of the reasons why Forgers train in conventional methods of forgery before ever touching soulstone.
  • The Greatest Story Never Told: Shai sucessfully completes an Impossible Task and sets gears in motion to end corruption in the empire, but it can only work if almost nobody knows about it.
  • Healing Magic Is the Hardest: Shai mentions that Resealing (using soulstamps to heal injuries) is one of the most difficult branches of Forgery, and one of the few she's never studied in any detail.
  • Impossible Task: Shai claims to have completed several on "rare occasions", and also considers Forging a complete soul in three months to be this.
  • Insistent Terminology: Frava despises Shai for being a Forger, but the Heritage Faction uses Forgers to turn ordinary pots into replicas of ancient ones. However, she justifies this by calling their Forgers "Rememberers", which Shai notes is basically the exact same thing. Though there is an in-universe difference, which Frava points out: "Forgers" use Essence Marks (stamps capable of rewriting a human soul) and "Rememberers" don't.
  • Insult Backfire: When Gaotona calls Shai (to Zu) "a master trickster, liar, and thief" who could turn guards to clay in her hands, Shai thanks him, even though it was not a compliment.
  • Kansas City Shuffle: Shai made two fakes of the painting she stole from Frava, one slightly less exact than the other, and burned the original, so that Frava would find the worse fake and keep the better one without knowing what was done.
  • Kill It with Fire: Shai does this to a painting when she originally came to the Rose Palace. The artist, blind and unable to make any more such paintings, asked her to.
  • Locked in a Room: Shai herself is literally locked in one, Gaotona has to come visit her frequently for other reasons. They grow to appreciate each other over the course of the story.
  • Locking MacGyver in the Store Cupboard: Discussed by the arbiters when they point out that they have to give Shai Forgery supplies so she can work on the Emperor's soul... which also gives her the perfect tools to escape whenever she likes. This is why they resort to calling on the Bloodsealer.
  • Logical Weakness: Forgers need to have some idea of the history of an object to Forge it. Shai's anti-Forger cell has stone from 44 different origins amalgamated into the walls, meaning she'd need to create and apply at least that many stamps to affect its construction.
  • Magnum Opus: Shai's Forgery of a human soul pushes her magic, her cunning, and her art to its absolute limits, and by the end she realizes it is the greatest work of art she has ever done.
    Her ancestors had worshipped rocks that fell from the sky at night [...] Master craftsmen would carve them to bring out the shape. Once, Shai had found that foolish. Why worship something you yourself created?
    Kneeling before her masterpiece, she understood.
  • Master Forger: Forgery requires detailed knowledge of the materials being Forged, so Wan had to become an accomplished Polymath and study under one of the greatest artists of the age. Gaotona is perplexed that someone with her prodigious talents would use them for fakery. Taken up to eleven when she's recruited to Forge a human soul... and, against impossible odds, succeeds.
  • Memory Gambit: Shai's Split Personality Essence Marks.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Gaotona has this reaction when Shai reveals that Ashravan resented him for persuading him to become Emperor in the first place.
  • Necromancer: The other part of a Bloodsealer's abilities. They can track you with their blood and sic the reanimated dead on you. Shai is threatened not only with being attacked this way if she tries to run, but with being turned into a skeleton warrior herself if she is killed.
  • No Name Given: The Bloodsealer and the Imperial Fool, though the latter is, according to Word of God, Hoid, a Dimensional Traveler of The Cosmere. Three of the five Arbiters of the Heritage Faction are also unnamed, pretty much existing only to have the faction not consist solely of Frava and Gaotona.
  • No-Sell: Ralkalest is an "unForgeable" metal, though it is otherwise rather fragile. It's almost certainly (but not strictly confirmed to be) aluminum.
  • Oh, My Gods!: "Nights (afire)" for Shai; "Days (alight/afire)", and "Mother of lights" for the Rose Palace natives.
    • Shai also mentions “the Unknown God” at one point, which could be anything from a baseless myth to the splintered Devotion or Dominion.
      • It is more likely to be a reference to Adolnalsium or to The God Beyond
  • Out-Gambitted: Shai begins the story out-played by the Imperial Fool, who stole the Moon Scepter and sold her out before running off.
  • Race Against the Clock: Shai has to complete the soul of the Emperor in 99 days, including the day of her employment. She considers this an Impossible Task, since the last time she tried the procedure, it was on herself and still took the better part of two years.
  • Reality Warper: All Forgers, but only within tight limits. They are able to impose an Alternate History upon objects, but their stamps are temporary with duration depending on how plausible the change is. For instance, it's easy to make gold into lead by rewriting the history of the object so it had been mixed with lead once, but turning lead into gold is essentially impossible because there's pretty much no way something meant to be lead would have been made out of gold instead. Another limitation is that a soulstamp will only affect the person it is placed on. So while 'Shaizan' may remember being raised by a warrior culture, none of those warriors would have any idea who 'Shaizan' is.
  • Refuge in Audacity: Both a stock tool of a good Forger and the entirety of the plan to recreate the Emperor's soul.
  • Retconjuration: This is the power of the Forger. Through carefully crafted soulstamps, the Forger changes the past of an object in some specific way. Some examples include:
    • Causing a certain room to have been inhabited for a time by one of the world's greatest artists, who amused himself by covering the walls with beautiful paintings.
    • Causing a battered desk to have instead been lovingly maintained and kept in pristine condition.
    • Causing the Forger herself to have spent ten years learning martial arts from a Proud Warrior Race.
  • Shout-Out: Being set on the same world as Elantris, this story contains a few references for fans to spot.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Discussed heavily, ends up firmly on the Idealistic side.
  • Squishy Wizard: Shai when she's not being Shaizan; her magic is based more around scholarship and skill than fighting strength, after all. The Bloodsealer goes down pretty easy as well once his "pets" have been dealt with.
  • Supernormal Bindings: Shai is bound with chains made of ralkalest metal, preventing her from Forging the shackles to make them defective. Interestingly, ralkalest is a fairly weak metal, so if she'd really wanted to, Shai could probably have Forged tools to break the chains.
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: Shai is well aware that Frava plans to surprise-execute her once her work is far enough along that someone else could finish it, so she intentionally makes her notes dense and cryptic. The other reason she will likely be killed is that successfully completing her task will give her unassailable blackmail material against the Emperor and his entire faction.