Brandon Sanderson’s collection Arcanum Unbounded contains short works from across his Cosmere setting. Two of them, “The Emperor’s Soul” and “The Hope of Elantris” take place on Sel, the world of his debut novel Elantris. “The Hope of Elantris” is a short story that gives us a sort of “deleted scene” from Fjordell’s attempt to invade Elantris at the climax of the novel.
“The Emperor’s Soul” is a longer and more interesting work. It’s set in the Rose Empire, a nation with very little connection to the countries featured in Elantris. An assassination attempt has left the Emperor in a catatonic state, a fact that has been concealed from the public. The Emperor’s advisors recruit Shai, a practitioner of a magic system called Forging, to create a magical seal that will reconstruct the Emperor’s memories and personality.
Transhumanism is a common theme in science fiction, but it’s rarer to see it explored in fantasy. The characters in “The Emperor’s Soul” ponder questions about the metaphysical nature of what Shai’s doing. Is the restored Emperor truly the same person he was prior to the attack? Or is Shai creating a clone of the Emperor? There’s a lot of political intrigue in the story, and a few action scenes at the climax, but the philosophical questions about the nature of selfhood are what really give the story its depth. The dual meaning of the term Forging adds to this.
The magic of Forging is also interesting in its distinctiveness from the Aonic magic introduced in Elantris. Sel’s magic is regional and tied to the natural terrain. Elantris focused heavily on the Aonic magic of Arelon, with glimpses of magical techniques from Fjordell and JinDo. “The Emperor’s Soul” gives readers an in-depth look at a different Selish culture and the magic that accompanies it.
Elantris doesn’t get as much attention as the Stormlight Archive and Mistborn series, but it was the first of Sanderson’s books I read, and I enjoyed it a great deal. I was happy to read further works in the same setting, and I hope Sanderson will return to it in full-length novels someday.