Novella Review: Snapshot

Note: If you like the cover art, Howard Lyon, the artist, has a cool process post and additional pictures here.

Disclaimer: I was a beta reader for this novella. My name is in the acknowledgments. My review may not be entirely unbiased.

From Goodreads:

Snapshot is a Science Fiction detective story following Anthony Davis, a cop assigned to Snapshot Duty. In this vivid world that author Brandon Sanderson has built, society can create a snapshot of a specific day in time. The experiences people have, the paths they follow—all of them are real again for a one day in the snapshot. All for the purposes of investigation by the court.

Davis’s job as a cop on Snapshot Duty is straight forward. Sometimes he is tasked with finding where a criminal dumped a weapon. Sometimes he is tasked with documenting domestic disputes. Simple. Mundane. One day, in between two snapshot assignments, Davis decides to investigate the memory of a call that was mysteriously never logged at the precinct, and he makes a horrifying discovery.

As in all many stories, Snapshot follows a wonderfully flawed character as he attempts to solve a horrific crime. Sanderson proves that no matter the genre, he is one of the most skilled storytellers in the business.

Snapshot is a novella, which means that it’s super short. At least, for the kind of books I like to read, it’s short. According to my Kindle, the whole thing can be read in an hour and a half. I definitely recommend reading works this short in a single sitting, because it really is one cohesive story, one single plot, and you’ll miss details if you take breaks. So if you want to read it, set aside the time to read it all at once, if you can. Also, read the Acknowledgments when you’re done. 🙂

Short doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot here, however. Snapshot is packed full of exciting moments, creepy thrills, and stunning twists. Sanderson is an expert at always keeping you unbalanced, guessing, unsure of what will happen next. There is never a boring moment in the book, and once you pick it up, it’s easy to just keep reading, to want to read just one more chapter, just one more, and suddenly, it’s done.

There are several plot twists here, and Sanderson’s ability to pack them into something this short amazes me. As with many of his books, there are bits that you will figure out ahead of time, but I guarantee there are also events that you won’t see coming. I hate it when, in a book that is about the twist, you can figure out the twists far ahead of time, and have the ending all plotted out in your head before it happens. I was super glad to find that Snapshot defied these expectations, in many ways making it feel like a full Sanderson novel.

The novella is based on a really cool idea, too, as with almost all of Sanderson’s novellas. In Snapshot, we’re asked what would happen if you could recreate a day at will, jump into it, do whatever, and leave again, with no consequences in the real world. Sanderson explores this through the lens of criminal investigations – what would the police do with this technology? It’s a fascinating question, and while his answers are only one possibility out of many, they are very interesting and thought-provoking.

As a side note, the setting is tangentially in the Reckonerverse, but you’ll only recognize this if you’re reading closely, as it’s only really hinted at in one or two paragraphs and is relevant only to the worldbuilding and not really the plot itself. If you are expecting more David and Megan, more Prof and Tia, more bad metaphors and gun nuts, you’ll be disappointed. Well, okay. Not about the gun nut part. But the rest of it. On the flip side, if you’ve never read the Reckoners books, you’re perfectly fine reading this at any time, because it won’t spoil any of that for you! (You really should read them, though.)

For all that, on the surface, Snapshot is a popcorn read, and a fun quick thrill ride, it presented a lot of interesting ideas about morality and reality that I am still pondering, several months after I first read it. When nothing is real, what is it okay to do? What is considered “wrong” in this case? How would you act? While It may not be quite as good at asking deep questions as The Emperor’s Soul was, Snapshot is a really good novella that handles the massive number of things that it is trying to do really well, and I absolutely loved it.

In summary, Snapshot is a quick, fun read, and when you can set aside an hour and a half, or maybe two hours, depending on your reading speed, you really should pick it up and read it all the way through. It is full of plot twists, cool worldbuilding, and somehow also manages to use this worldbuilding to ask some really interesting questions that I’m still not sure if I have an answer to. I give it five of five stars (but I may be slightly biased as a beta reader), and really think you should pick it up soon.

Note: While you can’t really get a physical copy right now (Vault Books is sold out, and the con exclusive is still con exclusive. I believe those’ll be available on Sanderson’s store sometime in November.), you can pick up the e-book for cheap right now at a variety of places.

Sanderson’s page with more info.


Novella Review: The Emperor’s Soul


From Goodreads:

A heretic thief is the empire’s only hope in this fascinating tale that inhabits the same world as the popular novel, Elantris.

Shai is a Forger, a foreigner who can flawlessly copy and re-create any item by rewriting its history with skillful magic. Condemned to death after trying to steal the emperor’s scepter, she is given one opportunity to save herself. Though her skill as a Forger is considered an abomination by her captors, Shai will attempt to create a new soul for the emperor, who is almost dead.

Probing deeply into his life, she discovers Emperor Ashravan’s truest nature—and the opportunity to exploit it. Her only possible ally is one who is truly loyal to the emperor, but councilor Gaotona must overcome his prejudices to understand that Shai’s forgery is as much artistry as it is deception.

Brandon Sanderson is often known for his longer works—his 350k+ word epic entries into the Wheel of Time series or the Stormlight Archive. But he is a much, much more versatile author than most people typically realize, and has written in various genres and at almost every conceivable length. He has written a few short stories, several novellas, his Alcatraz series of middle grade novels comes in at around 40-50k words, his YA series come in at 100k, his epics at 250k-400k.

In The Emperor’s Soul, one of Sanderson’s entries into the novella category, we are returned to the world of Sel, the world in which the novel Elantris took place. But if you haven’t read Elantris, don’t worry. This novella takes place on a completely separate continent, and there are only a handful of well-hidden clues that they are even set in the same world—but if you’ve read Elantris, you will likely pick up on the hidden easter-eggs that Sanderson has scattered throughout the novella.

The Emperor’s Soul takes place largely in a single room, following Shai’s efforts to, well, rebuild the Emperor’s Soul. In the hands of a lesser author, this could easily have become a boring novella, a philosophical mess of exposition and “deep thoughts” on life. But instead, through Sanderson’s impressive range of talents, we are given something much different. Shai’s voice comes alive in the novella, and she is truly, truly, a marvelous, complex, powerful character. We are somehow given her history and enough information to round out her character and her abilities, while never being bored with info-dumps. I found it very interesting to spend time in Shai’s head, watching her work through and brilliantly conquer the problems set before her.

Yet, perhaps, she is arguably not the only main character of the novella, though the vast majority of it is told through her viewpoint. While we never see him, The Imperial Fool, the one who set off the events that led to Shai being captured, is a character who should be familiar to Sanderson Cosmere buffs. Once you’ve read the novella, you should head over to Sanderson’s website to check out the deleted prologue, in which Shai actually converses with the Fool. It has some interesting tidbits, for sure.

The other most interesting character is definitely Gaotona, an Arbiter of the Empire, one of the men who shall decide Shai’s fate. At first utterly repulsed by the magic that Shai works, Gaotona is forced to watch over her and try to understand the process she is going through, so that he can verify that she is doing what she promised. His journey, though told mostly through Shai’s eyes, is also quite interesting.

The magic that Shai works is another trademark Sanderson system, utterly interesting, and based largely on the stamp system used in Taiwan. In fact, the entire novella has an oriental feel, something refreshingly different from the vaguely European settings that permeate most fantasy works these days. I am curious to see, in future works, how the magic of The Emperor’s Soul fits with the very different magic of Elantris, since they are both set on Sel. Also, there’s a very nice easter-egg relating to the magic system here that you will only catch if you’ve read Elantris.

The Emperor’s Soul won the Hugo award for best novella in 2013, and it undoubtedly deserved the award. Not only is it a fun, quick read (Every time I have read this, it’s been in a single sitting.), with an action-packed ending, but it is also a reflection on what art is, what beauty is, and what really is and is not a lie. It’s also an examination, although obliquely, of what makes up a person’s soul, and makes them who they are. In particular, though he is not really a character of the novella, we get to know Emperor Ashravan through Shai’s efforts to recreate his soul, a decidedly interesting look at things we don’t see very often.

In summary, The Emperor’s Soul is a trademark Sanderson, with a brilliant magic system and utterly intriguing characters, with just enough Cosmere related easter-eggs to keep the rabid fans pleased, while still tending to a more literary direction than many of Sanderson’s works, and is highly deserving of the Hugo Award that it won. Five of Five stars, an read that you really should pick up as soon as you can.

Brandon Sanderson.

The Emperor’s Soul on Amazon.

The Emperor’s Soul on Goodreads.