The Emperor’s Soul, by Brandon Sanderson
Set in Brandon Sanderson’s world of Elantra, this novella won both the Hugo Award and World Fantasy Award in 2013.
Shai is a Forger. This is more than someone who creates fake art or money. In Elantra a Forger can read the energy of something, a canvas, clay, a table, a window, and discover its history and its wishes. Others in Elantra often mock this as superstition but the proof is in what they create, forming a specially made stamp which is pressed on the object and changes its nature. The object also carries the mark of that stamp to show it was a forged item. Even these, however, are often collected and put on display.
Shai has been imprisoned for copying a painting owned by one of the Emperor’s counselors. She is taken from her cell and offered freedom in exchange for an important task. It has been kept secret but there was an assassination attempt on the Emperor. His wife was killed and the Emperor received an arrow in his forehead destroying his brain. The brain has been restructured by their physicians but he’s now an empty shell, able to eat and breathe but with no consciousness. To gain freedom Shai must forge the mind of the Emperor.
Shai proposes two years. She’s given less than 100 days. Shai is placed under guard in a workroom where she must study journals and books about the Emperor to understand his personality, memories, and motivations. As she works Shai realizes that they will never willingly free her, as the information is to dangerous for anyone but the highest government officials. She works to create a stamp while she plans an escape, and she also comes to know and understand the only advisor to the Emperor who has always told the truth.
It’s a charming story about both power and human personality. Shai culls bits of insight into an Emperor for whom she has no real respect. She’s also is asked to make alterations in the Emperor’s mind so that he will listen to one advisor and not others.
This is listed as Elantra Book 2, but you don’t need to know anything about Elantra or the other volumes to enjoy this standalone novella and it’s short enough to read in a long night or over a weekend.