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Sanderson's iconic magic systems are just as good in the short-story form!!!
on 11 September 2013
I'm a rather devoted Sanderson-fan -- despite not having read all of his impressive line-up! Hearing that 'The Emperor's Soul' had won the 2013 Hugo for best novella, I decided to give this small collection a shot. It must be said that I'm keen on short stuff. I read slowly, so having a story pan out over a hundred or so pages makes a pleasant change to the usual 500-700 pages most fantasy comes in!!!
Note: this volume is made-up of a short story and a novella -- it is not a full-length novel!
'Legion' is a break from the epic fantasy Sanderson is best known from. The 75-page story is a first-person-narrative following Steven Leeds, a rather remarkable character. "I am perfectly sane," he explains straight off. "My hallucinations, however, are all quite mad." The thing is, those hallucinations are a very important part of who he is. They essentially grant him a Sherlock Holmes-esque brilliance, as he employs them to enhance his own abilities. For instance, if he requires understanding of a foreign language, he can conveniently summon up a hallucinatory-linguist! It's a rather awesome character-trait, and Sanderson has a lot of fun with it.
The actual story, however, is not specifically about this aspect of Steven's personality. Instead we have a somewhat rushed thriller/detective story. Steven is charged with locating the whereabouts of a rather special camera... What follows was not, in my mind, altogether satisfactory!
There isn't much sense of cohesion, and things do move very fast. It's almost as though Sanderson was deliberately throttling his word-count, trying to fit as much action into as little space. The effect isn't great. Things feel rushed, and underdeveloped. I really enjoyed the opening, where we are given time to meet Steven -- and start realising just how interesting he is -- but the actual plot is too big. The structure is also unsuitable for a short story. In all, while I loved Steven's character, and some of the ideas, 'Legion' was rather dissapionting...
But then I read 'The Emperor's Soul'. And, put simply, I really recommend it!!! It was for this novella that I bought the book anyway, and I was not left disappointed. It's a return to a fantasy-locale (in fact, this is the same world explored in 'Elantris'), and we have another of Sanderson's excellent magic-systems to relish. Quite how he manages to create such varied spellcraft is beyond me -- but I'm not complaining.
'The Emperor's Soul' is a very well executed novella. There's some stunning world-building, great characterisation, the afore-mentioned magic-system, and a tightly crafted story. I don't want to spoil anything, so it's hard to know quite how much to explain in this review! I'll be careful...
Essentially, the plot follows Wan ShaiLu, a remarkably talented 'Forger'. She wields a powerful form of magic, that enables her to tinker with the 'souls' of objects and people. In so doing, she effectively changes their characteristics. A plain enamel pot can be transformed into a lavish vase; a scruffy window into a mass of glittering paned-glass. By understanding the base nature of objects, Shai can thus mould the world according to her whim. It's not an easy process, however. Forging requires very deep concentration, hard work, research, and the investment of time.
Exploration of this system is one of the most interesting aspects of the novella -- but there's also a plot, and character-development to go along with it. There's no doubting that Sanderson's structuring is impressive. He's balanced everything very well and I never felt like anything was missing.
'The Emperor's Soul' is one of the best stories I've read this year, and easily stands alongside the excellence of Sanderson's 'Mistborn' novels, not to mention the rest of his output. It IS a novella, so please don't expect a full-blown epic. As such, I will admit that this slight-volume is overpriced! And that's my only niggle.
'Legion' is a passable short-story featuring an intriguing character; while 'The Emperor's Soul' is one of the best pieces of fantasy I've read this year. I highly recommend any fans of fantasy check it out -- and, it's a great first introduction to Sanderson's fascinating writing!