As much as I've enjoyed the Mistborn saga, The Way of Kings, and his work on the final Wheel of Time novels, Elantris is one of the few works by Brandon Sanderson that I have yet to read (along with Warbreaker).
Fortunately, while The Emperor's Soul is set in the same world as Elantris, it is a completely separate story, and doesn't require any advance knowledge of the world Sanderson has created.
Clocking in at under 200 pages, this lacks the intense world-building of his other work, but still manages to cram in a significant amount of detail regarding his magic system. A bit more philosophical in nature, the magic of forging, involving the use of soulstamps and essence marks, is absolutely fascinating to explore. Sanderson does a masterful job of taking something simple, yet impossible, and making it a wondrously imaginative act of creation. Here, the system of magic is revealed not through narrative exposition, but through conversations between Shai, the Forger, and Gaotona, her captor. It means a slow unveiling of what she does and how she does it, but the means of that unveiling is an integral part of the tale.
Shai herself is an interesting character, more admirable than heroic. She is a character with whom we can sympathise, but one who does not prey on our sympathies. Less a victim than an opportunistic captive, she forges the means of her escape long before the end, but cannot bring herself to flee without satisfying her curiosity as to whether her greatest forgery will work. After all, it's one thing to forge great pieces of art, or to temporarily alter one's self . . . it's another thing entirely to forge a complete stranger's soul.
It's a shame that this is such a short work, told almost exclusively from Shai's point of view, because I would have liked to see the character of Gaotona better explored. He is intriguing, a man transparent in his emotions, but rather reserved in his motivations, and one who work as both a foil and a friend to Shai. Given the restrictions of the story, he is never really developed beyond the stern, compassionate, grandfatherly character we so often encounter in fantasy, but he is given a chance to shine in the final chapters . . . one that makes us want to know more about him.
Like a great play, the world here is largely relegated to a single room, and the characters are limited to a handful of key players. The drama all takes place on the stage, in plain view, relying on our connection to the characters, as well as our own curiosity, to keep us in our seats. In essence, just as we come to sympathise with Shai, we also come to share her curiosity about this impossible abomination which which she has been tasked.
While there is some significant action towards the end, with those magically-augmented battles that Sanderson writes so well, this is largely a story of ideas. It flows along at a leisurely pace, but has more than enough wit and wonder to keep the reader engaged. All-in-all a fine read for Sanderson fans new and old, and one that has put Elantris back near the top of my to-read pile.