Book Review: Tress of the Emerald Sea
Updated: Mar 8
A Cosmere novice’s review of Sanderson’s newest book
Tress of the Emerald Sea was one of the first books I read this year and what a book to start on!
After nine months of waiting for the Kickstarter to start distribution, the Year of Sanderson began on January 1, 2023. Tress was finally released to backers on ebook and audiobook (narrated by Michael Kramer). I read it rather promptly (by way of the audiobook).
And now it’s March. Am I late to the party? Yes, fashionably. Am I okay with that?
… the next surprise book will be reviewed more quickly.
Readers beware: I am NOT a Sanderson megafan. You want deep lore? Cosmere connections, Easter eggs to other Sanderson works, all that good stuff? You won’t find it here. Look here instead, at this Reddit post dedicated to finding all the Cosmere nuggets in Tress and compiling them in one place.
Well… let’s get going then!
Concept - light spoilers
In Tress’s back matter, Sanderson explains the seed of the idea for the story: The Princess Bride, but if Buttercup went to rescue Westley instead of assuming him dead. The book, especially tone-wise, delivers on that promise.
Narrated by Hoid, a mysterious planet-hopping bard who appears in many of Sanderson’s Cosmere novels, the story takes place on a planet called Lumar, where twelve moons rain different-colored “spores” in different geographical areas. Sandlike in texture and able to be fluidized by jets of air on the seafloor, these spores make up the colored seas. When spores come in contact with water (like sweat or spit), strange and dangerous things happen: some spores sprout giant plant tendrils, some are explosive, some become giant spikes, etc. in accordance with the color of their spore.
Tress is a young woman who lives on a secluded island in the Emerald Sea. No one is allowed to move there and none of the inhabitants are allowed to leave (except for the duke and his family). Extremely strict inspection procedures and the deadly spore seas make it nearly impossible for an inhabitant to leave the island.
A highly practical girl, Tress is content with her life on the island: she bakes delicious pies with ingredients she finds for cheap in the market, collects cups and stories from sailors who stop to resupply, makes money for her family by washing windows at the duke’s manor, and spends her time with her childhood friend Charlie, the son of that duke. Of course, the two realize that they have fallen in love with each other.
But when Charlie’s father takes him to the mainland to find a bride, then returns home without him, Tress seeks out her love’s fate. She discovers that Charlie was sent to sail the Midnight Sea and was taken captive by the Sorceress, the extremely powerful resident of that sea, and that the king will not pay his ransom.
So, Tress naturally comes to this conclusion: if I love Charlie, then I must be the one to bring him home. And so, perfectly naturally, she embarks on a journey across the seas, including the most dangerous Crimson and Midnight Seas, to bring her Charlie home.
This book is straight-up fabulous: the writing is strong, the voice of Hoid is hilarious and endearing, the worldbuilding is fully realized, the magic is intricate and interesting, and every character has personality (even when they’re all grouped together, like the Dougs).
Hoid’s storytelling needs a special shout-out because it makes the book. His narrative voice is like… if Neil Gaiman became an omniscient being, then took a sprinkle of inspiration from an insult comic when describing the world, including his past self (who proudly wore sandals with socks). The style is light and funny and cozy, like a grandpa reading to you when you’re sick.
As it should be, Tress is the true star of the book. The aspect that caught me most was her mind’s insistent focus on practicality. She defines herself as deeply practical and, when we see decisions through her eyes, the reader is inclined to agree with her. But when many people think of a “practical” character, they often think of people like Luke Skywalker’s parents: salt-of-the-earth, middle-aged adults who want their wild and dreaming children to give up these fanciful notions and just stay, work the farm, and take over the family business. People who often resist change until it’s probably too late.
Tress’s practicality, however, leads her into change and situations that test her prowess – and I loved that twist on my expectation of practicality.
It really is perfectly logical: if her love is sent away, then the one who wants him to return must be the one to bring him back, because who else is going to do it? So she makes dangerous, terrifying choices because practicality dictates that, to save Charlie, she must adapt to her surroundings. She is the embodiment of the idea that when someone makes the choice to care for others and do what’s right for them, that’s where change is really made. I love that kind of grit because it inspires me; she simply refuses to say that her goal, bringing Charlie home, is impossible. So she adapts her thinking to find ways to make it possible instead of banging her head against the problem until either she - or it - yields.
Upon closing the book, I thought, “Oh! What a sweet story.” I can’t wait to get that feeling again, once I come back to it after I’ve read more of the Cosmere.
Recommendations and Ratings
Recommendations first! Do I recommend that people read this book?
Even if you don’t plan on reading more Sanderson, it’s a fun story.
But what if you think you might want to read more Sanderson, but don’t know where to start? Then there are two kinds of information you need: is this book a good introduction to Sanderson as a writer; and is this book a good entry point into his Cosmere?
I can address the first, but not the second - I'll leave that to a more experienced Cosmere blogger.
Is Tress a Good Entry Point for Sanderson as a Writer?
Marketing for Tress has called it the perfect introduction to Sanderson. I can see where they’re going with that; given his penchant for writing multiple thousand-page, a standalone average-length fairy-tale-esque novel seems the perfect entry point for someone wanting to read more Sanderson.
Tress of the Emerald Sea would be a good entry point into Sanderson as a writer – with one big caveat. A reader needs to understand that the writing style in Tress isn’t Sanderson’s typical writing style. As long as they understand that, then yes. Tress a good introduction.
Sanderson specifically admits that Hoid’s voice is not natural for him; while alluding to future Hoid-voiced novels, he states that he wrote this one mostly to get the hang of this voice. Sanderson’s own voice is much more functional – sure, he gets artsy and clever and impactful and has fun. But he also gets deep into philosophical arguments, moral quandries, and murky situations. He gets mechanical when discussing cultures and magic systems (to a point where some descriptions remind me of roleplaying game rulebooks).
Tress, however, glosses over most of those heavier elements in favor of Hoid’s more theatrical flair. So if you’re looking for a writer who primarily spins lightly-mocking, yet still sweet, yarns and fairy tales, that’s not Brandon Sanderson. Neil Gaiman would be a better bet.
BUT! If what you’re looking for is solid, creative worldbuilding, cool magic, deep characters, careful plotting, and fun banter… then, yes. Read more Sanderson.
Is Tress a Good Entry Point for the Cosmere?
Now, on to the second: is Tress a good entry point for the Cosmere? Apparently, no.
Book reviewer and blogger “The Quill to Live” (isn’t that an awesome blog name?) ends his review of Tress with the indication that it should be very last on the reading list if you’re reading through Sanderson’s Cosmere. His blog also includes a reading list for the Cosmere, from the first books to read to the last.
So! Scale of 1-5, how many stars do I give Tress on various aspects of the story?
Craft (plot, characters, writing etc.) – 5/5
Brandon Sanderson is a master and it shows. Period. The writing disappears and you’re immersed in a fully-realized world with characters that could jump off the page and give you a hug. Or ask you for a kidney.
Thought-provoking – 3.5/5
If you want something meaty to chew, this is not the book for you. BUT that’s not to say that Tress doesn’t explore personal themes of transformation, identity, and such.
Fun – 6/5
Was there any doubt by now?
Wanna read it?
Yes? Good, you should read it. Here’s where you can buy it: https://www.dragonsteelbooks.com/collections/the-year-of-sanderson
From the link, you can pre-order print copies and buy e-books and audiobooks.
I think that’s all for this post! Have you read Tress of the Emerald Sea? What did you think of it? Let me know! I love to hear from you.
Until next time,