When I eagerly await something—an upcoming trip, a new season of my favorite show, a long-anticipated social event—the hope runs rampant in my head. I feast on the image of the thing in my mind, considering all the ways it could be amazing, groundbreaking, spectacular. And then, when the thing arrives, that glistening sheen wears off to reveal a lackluster event I shouldn’t have been all that excited for.
Such was the case months prior to my seventh-grade field trip to Six Flags Great America. I pined for the coasters, the rides, the funnel cakes in the months leading up to the event, to the point where my friends begged me to stop. “Cole, it’s February. We go to Six Flags in May.” But stop I would not. When the day game, the sky unleashed an incessant torrent of rain amidst a 35-degree Midwestern chill. Ever the optimist, I had worn shorts. I spent the majority of the trip holed up in a pizza restaurant doing my required physics worksheets while my bundled-up classmates rode coasters.
The flip side of such disappointment? The Year of Sanderson. Brandon Sanderson’s Kickstarter Campaign—I’ve stopped calling it “wildly successful” or any other hyperbolic statement. It is immune to hyperbole as the single biggest Kickstarter of all time—promised four books, three of them in the Cosmere. Plus, for those willing to shell out a hefty chunk of change (it me), the non-book months offer theme merch boxes. When I backed the Kickstarter, I asked myself: would this be another Six Flags debacle? Am I setting myself up for disappointment?
If Tress of the Emerald Sea is any indication…absolutely not. Sanderson’s first secret project is a Cosmere novel full of charm and adventure. And this review of the novel will be full of spoilers. You’ve been warned.
Tress lives on a desolate island in the emerald sea. The twelve colored seas of Tress’s world—Lumar, for those interested—are full not of water, but of spores. When spores interact with water, they have various nasty effects, making seafaring relatively dangerous, depending on the sea you’re traversing. But I get ahead of myself. Tress collects cups. She washes windows on the island and enjoys talking with Charlie, the Duke’s son. The Duke does not enjoy these conversations, despite not being a part of them. He takes to the seas with Charlie in tow to seek a politically advantageous marriage for his son. Charlie, to his credit, finds ways to wriggle out of such arrangements, much to the frustration of the Duke. Eventually, the Duke returns and names a distant nephew his heir, announcing he’s left Charlie to sail the Midnight Sea, where the evil Sorceress lives. Tress resolves to leave the island—an illegal act on its own—and rescue Charlie from the Sorceress’ clutches.
Let’s begin with the fresh and the new. Tress of the Emerald Sea is told by Hoid, everyone’s favorite worldhopper. The book’s tone is jovial and witty. Sanderson’s prose is in top form here, a feat made all the more incredible when you consider he wrote this book and three others over the course of two years. As much as I love Sanderson’s work, I don’t think his prose is lyrical, flowery, or poetic. It can be those things, but I find more often he prefers a breezy, functional writing style. Here, he ups the ante and plays within a style we’ve only glimpsed in previous Cosmere books. Every sentence is a treat, and Hoid’s voice proves a remarkable vehicle for the many ideas captured within Tress of the Emerald Sea.
Tress’s prose and storytelling style has been compared (accurately) to The Princess Bride. Sanderson himself lists it as an influence in the afterword. Many reviewers have dubbed this a fairy tale. It’s not. It’s an adventure story drawing from a wealth of fairy tale inspiration. I shy away from the direct comparison because I think calling this a fairy tale does Tress a disservice. This isn’t a cookie-cutter story intent on delivering a moral and nothing else. The novel has depth, well-rounded characters, and it draws from many other styles beyond fairy tales. The plot itself might be the simplest portion of the book, though it contained enough twists and turns (some predictable, others not so much) to keep me guessing. The characters were the real stars anyway.
Speaking of characters, Tress is one of Sanderson’s best to date. Lately, I’ve been exploring what it means to change, and how people grow exponentially the more they’re willing to accept change. Tress embodies this idea. Throughout the novel, we see her learn about herself and test the limits of what she believes she can do. She discovers power and strength in being a dynamic person. Transformation, though scary, can empower a person to plumb their internal depth and learn how much they’re capable of. It certainly helps that Sanderson surrounds Tress with a ship’s crew each focused on their own goals and growth. The entire cast here is wonderful, including the Dougs (you’ll get it when you read the book).
Finally, I want to touch on the magic system. Sanderson is known for them. The Aethers were featured in a minor role in The Lost Metal. Here, they play a much bigger part, and Tress learns how to work with the volatile substances. Cosmere-wiki editors will have a lot more to say about the magic system if you’re interested. For the purposes of this review, let’s settle on “cool as hell.” The different spores can be used to accomplish different tasks, and each is dangerous in its own way. The green spores of the Verdant Sea create vines that can grow into all sorts of chaotic structures. Midnight Spores have a much more functional purpose, though they siphon water from the humans employing their power. Sanderson finds unique ways to deploy the magic of the Aethers, and I was positively giddy when I read a handful of them.
Before I close things out, I want to answer a question many readers may have: when should you read this book? Well, we have a full Cosmere reading order, and we’ll update it to include Tress this Friday. If you can’t wait for that update, here’s a spoiler for free: Tress is going dead last. It’s just as Cosmere-aware as The Lost Metal, if not more. To get the full effect, you’ll want as much Cosmere knowledge in your noggin as possible.