I should begin by explaining something of my own relationship to the author’s works. Like many, I first encountered Brandon Sanderson when it was announced that he had been asked to complete The Wheel of Time series after the untimely passing of Robert Jordan. There are several camps of opinion on how he managed this monumental task, and I fall firmly in the camp of being glad that the plot was wrapped up in an overall satisfying manner, while being somewhat disappointed by the change in the tone of writing and the presentation of some of the characters. Sanderson himself has been open about the challenge of meeting the expectations of Wheel of Time fans and how he found some characters—Mat especially—more difficult to capture than others.
It was that exact issue that soured me on his writing for a time, as Mat is a favorite character of mine, and I found myself increasingly disheartened by what felt like a cartoonish representation of Mat’s thoughts and actions. On the other hand, Sanderson did a very nice job of advancing Rand’s arc into darkness (and eventually back out again) that had somewhat plateaued in Jordan’s final books. When I reread The Wheel of Time, which tends to happen every three years or so, I am prepared for the change in writing style and am increasingly able to enjoy the final three books of my favorite series. However, I have struggled to get into Sanderson’s other works, finding within them the same style of writing and characterizations that put me off his Wheel of Time books.
So when I opened Tress of the Emerald Sea, I was mentally prepared to not enjoy it. I am delighted to say that Brandon Sanderson proved me wrong! And he did so with the exact elements that I had come to dislike about his writing.
I read Tress of the Emerald Sea in three days over my winter holiday break. It was the perfect book for this time of year—cozy and fun and easy to put down as various social obligations arose and then pick right back up again after they were met. Brandon Sanderson says that the book was inspired by The Princess Bride, and this is apparent. The wit, fun, and magic—not the magic system or its wielders, but the magic of simply reading—reminded me of both the movie and the book by William Golding. The word “romp” is overused in describing books and movies, but I am going to go ahead and say that Tress of the Emerald Sea is a delightful sea-faring romp, complete with all of the elements of a classic adventure: pirates, mutiny, a friendly cook, a talking rat… you get the idea.
The book is well structured, with a clear and concise plot, believable character interactions, and strong character development. Tress is especially compelling, growing into her own as she leaves her small island home and ventures into an increasingly bigger world. The villains are somewhat comical (the evil sorceress sometimes plays Solitaire on her laptop, er, “magical seeing board”), but it does not detract from the stakes of the story. In fact, the real danger in the book comes from the environment.
In a twist that is both very Sanderson and a touch sci-fi, the seas that cover much of Tress’s world are not water but spores that drift down from the orbiting moons. These spores are highly reactive to water in ways that are dangerous and often deadly. The worldbuilding—always a strong suit for Sanderson—is executed perfectly, with details given to the reader gradually but steadily so that our understanding of the world is always exactly where it needs to be.
The narrator is a familiar figure to those acquainted with Sanderson’s cosmere, and is eventually introduced to be a character in this book as well. This allows the fourth wall to be more of an open window, with thoughts frequently directed at the reader. Some of these are useful exposition, some are comical asides, and some are absolutely nonsensical ramblings. There is a reason for that though, as you’ll see.
The combination of relatively low stakes and a narrator with a known penchant for zaniness is what allows me to put aside my usual preference for grimdark fantasy and really enjoy Sanderson’s writing in this book. For example, all of the nameless sailors on the ship are simply generalized as “Doug” or “the Dougs.” Descriptions often employ similes, mostly to positive effect. A character described as having a “neck kind of merged with his chin—to the point that after meeting him, you’d inexplicably get a hankering for a baguette” made me laugh out loud.
On the other hand, sometimes these comical descriptions detract from moments of gravity. That particular character is being described right after he dies, one of the few actually depicted deaths in the book. Other times—as when the ship tilts and we are told that it is “as if we are seeing through the lens of a student who had just discovered experimental film”— I am reminded of the note left by a professor on one of my college assignments: “Is this really the best way to describe this?” Maybe not.
Overall, this book was a joy to read. The physical copy is beautiful, with an outside cover and endpapers that fit the spirit of the book perfectly (and that you will appreciate even more as you consider them again after finishing the book). Sanderson’s acknowledgements and postscript notes make clear the absolute pleasure that the book was to create. For an author who has been so prolific over the past decade—in fantasy, no less, a genre whose authors have a notorious tendency to be less prolific than we would like—Tress of the Emerald Sea is a welcome addition to an already impressive catalog. In fact, it just may have motivated the Sanderson skeptic in me to take another look at the cosmere.