A few years back, I read Brandon Sanderson's Elantris. It wasn't a great book, but it had its moments, and I thought that Sanderson showed some real pA few years back, I read Brandon Sanderson's Elantris. It wasn't a great book, but it had its moments, and I thought that Sanderson showed some real promise as an author despite its flaws, the most serious of which was the two dull-as-dishwater protagonists. I ended my review of that book by saying, " If he can come up with heroes as interesting as his villains, I think he could write some excellent fantasy."
In The Emperor's Soul, Sanderson has done just that, and in doing so has written one of the best fantasy novels I've read in years. It's short (under 200 pages), and is more of a character piece than an adventure story. It's supposedly set in the same world as Elantris. but I couldn't pick out the places where the two books overlap. It is the story of a Forger (a magically empowered counterfeiter) named Shai, who has been captured trying to rob the Emperor of a fantasy kingdom that bears some resemblance to ancient China. She is spared from execution, at least for the time being, when the Emperor is put into a vegetative state by an assassin's crossbow, and his inner circle of advisors coerce her into forgeing new soul for him.
There's a plot--a good one--involving Shai's attempts to create the soul while keeping herself alive and gaining her freedom, but the heart of the story is the interplay between Shai and Gaotona, the oldest of the Emperor's advisors. There's plenty of detail invested in the system of magic that Shai uses to make her counterfeits, but more important is what that counterfeiting means to her, and what it means to Gaotona. She views herself as an artist, and one whose art is most successful when no one realizes that it is hers, while he is impressed by her talent but is continually frustrated by her refusal to invent things of her own, and even moreso by her insistence on deception. ...more
Like most seriously flawed epic fantasies, when describing the problems with Elantris, it's easiest to start at the end.A lot is wrong with this book.
Like most seriously flawed epic fantasies, when describing the problems with Elantris, it's easiest to start at the end. There's a lot of violent action at the climax, of course, but it suffers from bad pacing and vague description, and there's a good deal more convenient coincidence than is healthy. There's a twist at the end that shouldn't have been a twist at all, given the knowledge the caracters have available, and there's a completely gratuitous shift to a new setting that is barely described at all, which contributes to the unsatisfying battle sequences.
Though the ending was the worst part, the book also suffers from protagonists who are not only too good to be true, but too good to be interesting. It's hard not to groan a bit when you realize that the heroes of the tale are a wise, inspiring prince, and a tough, clever princess. Neither one has particularly complex motivations or meaningful flaws, and most of their triumphs come too easily for them to be the sort of baddasses who can carry a fantasy story by virtue of their two-dimensional awesomeness.
For all these problems, though, the book has a lot going for it. For one thing, it's admirably self-contained. It's not the first book in the Elantris trilogy, and by the standards of fantasy doorstoppers, it's not even that long. The premise itself, of a fallen magical city occupied by cursed, half-living wretches who were once godlike magicians, was interesting and unusual enough to get me to pick the book up in the first place, but what kept me reading was the antagonist, the priest Hrathern.
Evil priests are almost as much a fantasy staple as wise princes and sword-wielding princesses, but Hrathern avoids being a boring retread, as he's neither a mindless fanatic nor a transparent hypocrite. His motivations are a complex and believable mixture of ego, genuine conviction and obedience to a (completely terrible) religious hierarchy, and he rationalizes his actions so efficiently that it's easy to for the reader to reconcile his cynical manipulations with his sincere religious belief. Not only is he a strong enough character to rescue this book, he's a strong enough character to make me want to read other books by Brandon Sanderson. If he can come up with heroes as interesting as his villains, I think he could write some excellent fantasy....more