One of the things I love so much about his writing is the size of the books, and the knowledge that he’s a prolific writer, so I never have to wait too terribly long for more of the story. And yet, somehow, this tiny novella is now one of my favorite things he’s written, right after The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance. It was beautiful and profound and made me think deeply. I just wish there had been more of it. This is going to be less of a review than a “deep thoughts inspired by a story” session, so bear with me. (Also, I buddy read this with fellow Booknester Petrik, just in case you're wondering why you're seeing double.)
Shai is a Forger, a woman who can “flawlessly copy and re-create any item by rewriting its history with skillful magic,” according to the synopsis. And she is the very best at what she does. The story follows Shai as she attempts an impossible task. It made me question everything I believe about what makes art worthy of praise and what defines a person or object.
Is a skillful forgery any less lovely and awe-inspiring simply because it isn’t an “original”? It requires just as much talent and even more attention to detail, along with research and study that the original artist never had to consider. King Solomon claimed that “there is nothing new under the sun,” so what constitutes originality? Art has always been incredibly important in my life. Should I not sing or write or play guitar unless I have something entirely new to say? The most we can hope for as artists is to say something that’s already been said countless times but in some new way. Because nothing is ever said quite the same way twice. There can be no perfect forgeries, not really. When you pour yourself into something, when you give your art everything you are, your blood and sweat and tears and heart and soul, there will be some originality there, in spite of what critics may say. There has to be, because you are an original. There has never been and never will be a copy of you, and thus everything you create bears the unique imprint of your fingertips, your soul, your self.
These were the tears of a man who saw before him a masterpiece. True art was more than beauty; it was more than technique. It was not just imitation. It was boldness, it was contrast, it was subtlety. In this book, [he] found a rare work to rival that of the greatest painters, sculptors, and poets of any era. It was the greatest work of art he had ever witnessed.
Without getting into the story itself (because it’s a tiny thing and everyone should read it. If you’ve never tried Brandon Sanderson before, here is a fantastic place to dip your toes in the waters of his writing.), Shai’s power comes from her understanding of the three different Realms: the Physical, the Cognitive, and the Spiritual. Everything exists in all three realms. In order to influence an object in the Physical Realm, you must understand how it views itself in the Cognitive Realm. Following this line, all things have some sort of self-awareness, whether animate or inanimate. This fascinated me. I’m a Christian, and as such I believe that God created us in three parts as He Himself is Triune. We are body, soul, and spirit, our own self-contained imitation of the Holy Trinity. Thus, in order to truly understand ourselves, we must understand all of our components. If I’m physically as in shape as an Olympic athlete but am depressed and suicidal, am I completely healthy? No! I have to have my mind and my body and my heart all working as one to be happy and healthy and at peace. Sanderson has taken that idea and applied it to everything in Shai’s world. Others in that world find this belief system pagan and disturbing, but their opinions don’t shake Shai’s views. She’s quite possibly my favorite character Sanderson has created so far. At the very least, she’s in my top five. She’s an artist who sticks to her beliefs and cannot be swayed, which I respect immensely.
There were so many other deep questions that vied for my attention as I read. What makes us who were are? Are we just the sum of our experiences, or are we more? Is a person’s personality and soul quantifiable? How well do you know those around you? Do you pay attention only to what benefits you, or do you observe people for their own sake? Do you admire art for what it is, or simply because it’s popular at this moment? Sanderson crafted a beautiful addition to his Cosmere with Shai’s story. And, though this is set in the same world as Elantris and not The Way of Kings, it helped me understand Soulcasting much better, even if it’s not quite the same magic system. There’s a lot to love in this novella, whether you’re already a hardcore Sanderson fan or if you’ve never read a word he’s written. Give this a try, and let Shai’s story leave her stamp your soul.