Shai pressed her stamp down on the tabletop.Brandon Sanderson's latest short novel, The Emperor's Soul, set in the same "world" as his first published novel, Elantris, is one of those "almost" novels. It almost is a good novel, with almost a fascinating premise, and almost with excellent prose. Yet almost is not the same as actually accomplishing something and in the case of The Emperor's Soul "almost" might as well be something that actually is not all that good.
As always, the stamp sank slightly into the material. A soulstamp left a seal you could feel, regardless of the material. She twisted the stamp a half turn – this did not blur the ink, though she did not know why. One of her mentors had taught that it was because by this point the seal was touching the object's soul and not its physical presence.
When she pulled the stamp back, it left a bright red seal in the wood as if carved there. Transformation spread from the seal in a wave. The table's dull grey splintery cedar became beautiful and well maintained, with a warm patina that reflected the light of the candles sitting across from her.
Shai rested her fingers on the new table; it was now smooth to the touch. The sides and legs were finely carved, inlaid here and there with silver. (p. 49, ARC edition)
Sanderson's stories depend heavily upon the use of magical systems, many of which differ in structure, if not always in function, from what passes for the norm in secondary-world/epic fantasies. For The Emperor's Soul, he uses the idea of carved stamps as a means of transferring meaning (and physical/semantic form) to another object. Skilled artisans, working with the proper materials, can imbue an object (such as the table in the passage above) with new characteristics, transfiguring its original form into something quite different in appearance and substance. While not a new fictional concept (I almost immediately thought of Gustav Meyrinck's The Golem and the symbol inscribed on the golem's head), it certainly is not something used much in secondary-world fantasies. Yet the potential in having this form of "magic" used is largely wasted, as Sanderson destroys the mysterious, possibly mystical elements of such a "magic system" by overexplaining the concepts and effects of soul stamping.
Likewise, the plot had the potential to be page turning, with the main character, the Forger Shai (who had been arrested earlier after her masterful reproduction of a painting was detected after laborious study by the Emperor's men) given only a scant one hundred days to "forge" a new "soul" for the Emperor after he is the target of an assassination attempt and his mind is erased when healing is attempted. Yet too often Sanderson engages in exposition when perhaps it would have been better to have Shai work on the concepts of the soul that she is "forging" without explaining, via forced, often wooden dialogues with other characters, what to her would have been the most basic of concepts. Having encountered other writers who have taken an elliptical approach toward describing a person's character (Jeffrey Ford's excellent The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque comes to mind), Sanderson's laborious explanations of the semantics of soul forging becomes redundant by the novel's midpoint with most of its potential power to surprise and intrigue the reader leached by the repetitive explanations.
This problem is compounded by the characterizations being spotty. While I have noted in the past that characterization is often one of Sanderson's weaker points as a novelist, there are times where the characters, even the main ones such as Shai, feel as though they are pushed too far into the background, with there often being the sense that the reader is hearing the trite comments from cyphers rather than fully fleshed-out characters. While some might argue that in a short novel of less than 200 pages that it is very difficult for there to be well-developed, dynamic characters, in other stories that I have read which have treated similar topics before (some of Borges' short fiction, for example), the characters, even when they have little to say, usually do not feel as extraneous to the story as they do here in The Emperor's Soul.
But the biggest fault lies in the thematic treatment. The concept of "forging" a new soul and impressing new memories (or the simulacra of old ones) possesses great potential, Sanderson does a poor job in actually exploring the ramifications of this. This is what frustrated me most while reading it. As Shai works for one hundred days on her forging of replacement memories/character for the hollowed-out emperor, there could have been much, much more said about the meaning of such an undertaking. However, Sanderson just seemed to be unwilling to explore just what was involved here. He provides a hint of something deeper that is transpiring, but in the inverse of his tendency to overexplain the mechanics of an action, he fails to develop adequately the semantics involved. By novel's end, the reader has a very good idea of what Shai has been doing in terms of the mechanics of her "magic," but there is no real "magical" element of transformation that's taking place because Sanderson does not explore well the transformative aspects of Shai's soul stamping.
There lurks within The Emperor's Soul the germ of an outstanding fiction, one that a master like Umberto Eco, Jorge Luis Borges, or José Saramago could have taken and nurtured until it blossomed. But this is not what Sanderson apparently was interested in doing and the story suffers for it. It is not pure dreck, as there are times where the descriptive prose and plot create some narrative tension that might make this interesting to readers who are not as curious about the semantics of the stamping as I am, but it is a failed novel whose potential is largely unreached because Sanderson "almost" develops the story and its elements, yet ultimately shying away from it for some unknown reason. Yet as I said above, "almost" does not equate with any accomplishments and The Emperor's Soul is a much poorer novel than it otherwise could have been due to Sanderson's lack of thematic, prose, and character development.