There’s an element that commonly appears in fantasy novels. In some cases, as in Harry Potter, it’s explicitly constructed as a school. In many others, it’s more of a master-apprentice system.
But the bottom line is this: none of the improved pedagogical methods that are used in modern-day Muggle classrooms are making it into the magical community. Worse, many of the methods of magical instruction are downright abusive.
Since I just gave up on watching a show that was supposedly about a graduate school in magic, let’s talk about this mess.
I just read my way through a book by Brandon Sanderson. He may have taken over Wheel of Time after the death of Robert Jordan, but this particular novel was actually quite short. The real title is The Emperor’s Soul, though I think the one from the blog post works just about as well.
This leaves us with two main things to consider: the magic system and the politics.
Wan ShaiLu, or Shai for short, is our protagonist. She’s a thief… and a Forger, with a capital “F”. She can make a specially carved stamp, which she can then place on any kind of object, temporarily transforming that object into something else. To do so requires a knowledge of that object’s history, and effectively “changing” its history to be something different. The duration of the Forgery is determined by how plausible the change is, and how much the object “desires” the change. If a stamp “sticks,” then the change is permanent unless someone damages the stamp. One example is a broken window that “wants” to be beautiful again. Regardless of duration, the stamp itself remains as a mark of the Forgery.
While being a Forger is looked down upon, and doing Forgery to a human being is illegal, there are a few exceptions. The Rememberers are essentially assembly line workers, churning out fancy vases Forged from poor ones, for example. The Resealers are healers, and also thought to be “not really Forgers,” returning the body to its state prior to injury or illness. Bloodsealers are essentially necromancers, and just as reviled, if not more so, than the Forgers.
Shai’s first problem is that her attempt to steal the Moon Scepter from the Emperor’s art gallery and replace it with a Forgery was foiled by her co-conspirator, who turned her in, and then ran off with the real scepter himself. (The Forgery was mistaken for the real one.) As the story opens, she’s desperately trying to find a way to escape before she is executed for her crimes. However, she gets a reprieve…
The second problem is the nature of the reprieve. Emperor Ashravan, thanks to the Resealers, survived an assassination attempt by an opposed faction. Unfortunately, the injury he sustained was a serious head wound. He survived, and his brain was repaired, but his mind is completely gone. The Arbiters, essentially the Emperor’s cabinet, want her to make a stamp that restores his mind and personality. She has a hundred days to do it, while the Emperor is technically in mourning and seclusion for the death of his wife, in order to do the job and keep the evil Forgery secret. Otherwise, she gets executed, and a new emperor will be chosen from a faction the Arbiters don’t like. In return for success at this practically-impossible task, she is promised a pardon, complete with the return of some of her fancier stamps for modifying herself.
Of course, she then proves that it’s possible to do after all. Shai is also wise enough to the political situation to know that she’s going to be killed as soon as she finishes — or sooner, if Frava can convince another Forger to finish her work. Thus, she makes a point of making her notes obscure and planning her escape.
The one sad part is that, due to the brevity of the story and the fact that almost the entire story is confined to Shai’s workroom in the palace, we don’t get to see all the implications of Forgery. To accurately reproduce a painting, Shai had to work with the master painter who made it; can something similar be done for books? If so, that’s some printing press there. It’s not clear how common writing is, but the palace guards are all literate.
Furthermore, how well does the Resealing work? Even if a seal “sticks” on a human, it only ever lasts a day. Is that true of healing? Or does the fact that it “restores” the person make the healing permanent? Can Resealing cure diseases as well as heal injuries? Regardless, it still appears to require serious medical knowledge — you can’t rebuild somebody’s brain unless you have extensive information about how it’s supposed to be structured, even if you can’t restore individual neural pathways.
As Michael would say, there’s a lot of possibilities here for exploitation. I withhold judgement here, since I don’t think there’s a broad enough view to judge most such things.
One Honest Man
Gaotona, one of the five Arbiters, is the other truly sympathetic character. Unlike the other four Arbiters, he’s the only one who doesn’t ask Shai to reprogram the Emperor to listen to their advice more closely. He’s an old friend, rather, and is motivated primarily by a desire to see his friend restored. He was the one who encouraged Ashravan to seek the position, to change the Empire into something better. He’s also essential in the reconstruction of the Emperor’s mind.
One interesting point here is that Gaotona and Shai discuss how to manipulate someone by… being honest. I wonder how often this actually occurs in real politics — deliberately twisting facts and misleading statements are common enough, but actual honesty? Tricky.
Regardless, Gaotona is an oddity. Frava, one of the other Arbiters, is not. She is highly ambitious, and the first to offer Shai an additional reward in exchange for changing the Emperor’s personality. She also “borrows” Shai’s notes to have them “copied.” Shai deals with this.
What is perhaps more surprising is that an “honest” man like Gaotona retains his position in an environment where the other four Arbiters are somewhat hostile towards him. Perhaps this is due to his pull with Emperor Ashravan. It’s also partially explained at the end that Frava was trying to get Gaotono fired via some private conversations with the Emperor… which are never mentioned to Shai, so the re-made Emperor won’t know about them, and Frava will have to start all over again.
The funny thing is, by not asking for it, Gaotono essentially ended up with the Emperor subtly modified to what Gaotono would want. Shai, having read the man’s journals and pulled his life to pieces, realizes that the Emperor’s plans of reform got sidelined. She programmed into Ashravan a need to do some contemplation after his brush with death and oblivion, and “rethink his life,” with the intent of gently nudging him towards being the reformer he and Gaotono had once wanted him to be.
Now, this may be a reasonable change, but is it ethical? Before being shot, would Ashravan have consented to the change, positive though it may be?
While leads to the next point…
Mad People Skillz
Lastly, Shai’s entirely mundane ability to figure out how people think seems a bit… over the top. She figures out essentially every person she meets — Gaotono, realizing that he is, in fact honest; Frava’s ambition; and also various of the guards and a Bloodsealer working to keep her from leaving before she’s done. And then, of course, there is Ashravan himself, whom she puts back together from journals, histories, interviews, and close study with Gaotono.
This last seems utterly ridiculous, particularly to accomplish in three months. She also has to fill in — make up — some details too personal to ever be written down. At least any serious gaps or errors will be assumed to be a consequence of his injury, but still. If she has to go so far as figure out his unconscious reasons for why his favorite color is green, how can she possibly put his entire mind together? Even modern-day biographers don’t generally go into that level of detail, and they (presumably) take much longer than three months studying a person.
Even worse, given her people skills, why did she not realize that her collaborator in the theft of the Moon Scepter was planning to betray her? The planning of that heist was certainly extensive enough to justify enough contact to have an idea of what the man was like.
On the other hand, her chamber-plot plan of getting in to visit the Emperor before escaping was brilliant.