Tress of the Emerald Sea by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Series: The Cosmere
Genre: Fantasy, High Fantasy, Epic fantasy
Pages: 483 pages (Kindle)
Published: 1st January 2023 by Dragonsteel Books (Kickstarter) & 10th January 2023 by Tor Books (US Ebook)/Gollancz (UK Ebook)
Tress of the Emerald Sea was simply whimsical and wonderful. Starting the year 2023 with the first secret novel from The Year of Sanderson is the correct action for me.
“Even small actions have consequences. And while we can often choose our actions, we rarely get to choose our consequences.”
The time is here. The first of the four awaited secret project novels, Tress of the Emerald Sea, by Brandon Sanderson is here. If you’re active in the fantasy community, or even if you’re not, it is no longer news that Sanderson has shocked the world with the immense success of his four secret novels Kickstarter campaign. I mean, number one most pledged Kickstarter campaign of all time; it doesn’t get more successful than that. And it shouldn’t also come as a shock that I, as a longtime fan of his Cosmere novels, end up enjoying Tress of the Emerald Sea. I wanted to start my year with a great book, and choosing this book as the first novel of 2023 (as I said) was the right pick. Sanderson plus a full-length Cosmere novel is a formula that never ceases to impress me. What I did not expect, however, was just how visually beautiful Tress of the Emerald Sea would be. I am pleasantly surprised. I am glad the past Petrik decided to buy four premium hardcover editions of the secret novels, and I am eternally thankful to my co-blogger, TS, for covering the expense of the shipping fee. Without TS, I do not think I would cave into buying the premium hardcover editions, and I would regret it so much. I will go into more details on this later, but at $40 per secret novel (not counting the shipping fee) and for everything we get, this special edition can be considered, relatively, a bargain. This is on top of it being such a fun and cozy book to read.
“Leaving didn’t feel exciting. It felt heavy. Every child looked forward to the day when they could choose a different path from the one their parents were on. Tress sincerely hoped she hadn’t decided on one that led straight off a cliff.”
All her life on an island named The Rock in the emerald-green ocean, Tress lived a simple life with the simple pleasures of collecting cups received from sailors from faraway lands and listening to stories told by her friend, Charlie. But when Charlie’s father takes him on a voyage to find a bride and disaster strikes, Tress must leave her simple life to stow away on a ship and seek the Sorceress of the deadly Midnight Sea. Although I expected to love this book, I was initially worried after reading the first few chapters. Note the word ship in the official premise. Sailing and seafaring dominated the majority of Tress of the Emerald Sea. Personally, I tend to have mixed feelings about fantasy books with a heavy focus on seafaring unless they’re The Liveship Traders by Robin Hobb and The Tide Child trilogy by R.J. Barker. And there were indeed some sections here where I felt a bit of a lull because of this. However, my overall experience was fun. Most of the time, it was difficult for me to stay away from the book. Sanderson’s prose and the relatively short length of the novel, plus its short chapters, made it easy for me to steal-read one or two chapters whenever I had some free time. This was a delightful book about human beings, contradictions, leadership, found family, stories, love, bravery, and empathy.
“It might seem that the person who can feel for others is doomed in life. Isn’t one person’s pain enough? Why must a person like Tress feel for two, or more? Yet I’ve found that the people who are the happiest are the ones who learn best how to feel. It takes practice, you know. Effort. And those who (late in life) have been feeling for two, three, or a thousand different people… well, turns out they’ve had a leg up on everyone else all along. Empathy is an emotional loss leader. It pays for itself eventually.”
Before reading Tress of the Emerald Sea, I did not read any of the secret novel preview chapters. However, based on the known artists and the title or premise of the four novels, Tress of the Emerald ranked third out of four. I am interested in all four, but I am most excited about the third and fourth secret novels. Based on these, the first two secret novels felt like they would be the most tonally different from Sanderson’s other Cosmere books. Having read all published Cosmere stories, including this one, I can convey that Tress of the Emerald Sea has proved it. Sanderson has mentioned that The Princess Bride is one of the main inspirations behind this book. Another good comparison for what kind of tone you’re getting here is Good Omens by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman. So it is time to admit something. I haven’t read or watched The Princess Bride yet, but I have watched Good Omens. And I think Sanderson nailed the comparison he’s going for. The storytelling is whimsical and light-hearted in tone but also imbued with clever philosophical nuggets and serious themes occasionally. I loved the novel for it. I don’t think I would’ve liked it this much if it was just all fun and joy all the way through. Sanderson’s comedy, especially when the narrative involves young adult characters, doesn’t land well with me often. But his hard-hitting and thought-provoking passages? That’s another story. Sanderson may not have flowery prose, but the words he put on the pages of his novel frequently hit and became passages I think about daily. A few examples from this book are:
“While a healthy measure of foolhardiness drove our ancestors toward discovery, fear kept them alive. If bravery is the wind that makes us soar like kites, fear is the string that keeps us from going too far. We need it, but the thing is, our heritage taught us to fear some of the wrong things.”
And also these two long passages about memories.
“Beyond that, memories have a way of changing on us. Souring or sweetening over time— like a brew we drink, then recreate later by taste, only getting the ingredients mostly right. You can’t taste a memory without tainting it with who you have become. That inspires me. We each make our own lore, our own legends, every day. Our memories are our ballads, and if we tweak them a little with every performance… well, that’s all in the name of good drama.”
“Memory is often our only connection to who we used to be. Memories are fossils, the bones left by dead versions of ourselves. More potently, our minds are a hungry audience, craving only the peaks and valleys of experience. The bland erodes, leaving behind the distinctive bits to be remembered again and again. Painful or passionate, surreal or sublime, we cherish those little rocks of peak experience, polishing them with the ever-smoothing touch of recycled proxy living. In so doing— like pagans praying to a sculpted mud figure— we make of our memories the gods which judge our current lives. I love this. Memory may not be the heart of what makes us human, but it’s at least a vital organ. Nevertheless, we must take care not to let the bliss of the present fade when compared to supposedly better days. We’re happy, sure, but were we more happy then? If we let it, memory can make shadows of the now, as nothing can match the buttressed legends of our past… Do not let memory chase you. Take the advice of one who has dissected the beast, then rebuilt it with a more fearsome face— which I then used to charm a few extra coins out of an inebriated audience. Enjoy memories, yes, but don’t be a slave to who you wish you once had been. Those memories aren’t alive. You are.”
Although possible, it wouldn’t feel organic to have these kinds of passages appearing throughout the book if the novel is told through the first-person or third-person perspective of Tress. These were effective because the entire story in Tress of the Emerald Sea is narrated through Hoid’s perspective. Hoid is an integral character in Sanderson’s Cosmere universe. And we, Cosmere fans, are all waiting for Hoid’s origin story. Sanderson mentioned he wanted to practice and be more fluent at writing Hoid’s perspective before that backstory novel happened, and this is the book where it came to fruition. This won’t, however, be how the story is told eventually in Hoid’s backstory novel. It will definitely be less whimsical. But to give you an idea of the kind of voice Sanderson is giving Hoid in this book, if you’ve read The Stormlight Archive series, this is more in tune with the unforgettable “Wandersail” and “The Dog and the Dragon” stories Hoid told in the series. A full-length version of that kind of in-world story. I absolutely loved “Wandersail” and “The Dog and the Dragon,” and obviously, I ended up loving Tress of the Emerald Sea as well.
“Worldbringers like myself spend decades combing through folk tales, legends, myths, histories, and drunken bar songs looking for the most unique stories. We hunt for bravery, cleverness, heroism. And we find no shortage of such virtues. Legends are silly with them. But the person who is willing to reconsider their assumptions? The hero who can sit down and reevaluate their life? Well, now that is a gemstone that truly glitters, friend.”
So yes, we get to learn more about Hoid and the Cosmere (more on this in the next paragraph) inside this book. But at the end of the day, even though this is told through Hoid’s perspective, Tress of the Emerald Sea is still a standalone story about Tress and her adventures. I mentioned The Stormlight Archive earlier, and I am no stranger to voicing how much I love the Bridge Four group in the series. The found family trope is one of the many things Sanderson executed extremely well in The Stormlight Archive and the first Mistborn trilogy. And he managed to craft another cherishable found family in this book. Tress, Huck, Fort, Salay, and all the characters are well-written and likable characters. The Deaf character representation was written with the help of a special sensitivity reader to do it justice, too. And hey, for the first time in the Cosmere, we finally get to see a real dragon. As Tress and the crew of the ship she’s in face danger constantly, the bonds between them grow deeper and deeper. My investment in them, too. And upon reaching the last page, I can’t help but hope we will get more stories or appearances from these characters eventually. Knowing how connected with each other the Cosmere is now, I’m confident we will.
“She… didn’t need to do this all on her own. That shouldn’t have been such a revelation for her. But after spending ages walking around with everyone piling bricks in your arms, it can throw you off balance when someone removes a brick to carry for you.”
Speaking of Cosmere connections, and because people will ask me this question, should you read other Cosmere books first? Tress of the Emerald Sea is a standalone story in the world of Lumar. This marks the first time we get a book taking place in this world in the Cosmere. Like always, it is not necessary to read the other Cosmere books first to enjoy the main story here. But will you benefit from reading them? Yes, you will. I talk about this already in my review of The Lost Metal. But moving forward, Sanderson’s future publications in the Cosmere universe, especially the ones taking place after book 5 of The Stormlight Archive, will most likely have heavy Cosmere crossovers. If you intend to read all of Sanderson’s Cosmere books, it is a good idea to start catching up reading them if you want to reap all the connections. As for this book, reading the entirety of The Mistborn Saga so far will be beneficial. Additionally, there were a few small nods to the magic or technology portrayed in Warbreaker, Elantris, and The Stormlight Archive. I will leave it to you to decide whether you want to read them first or not. There is no spoiler for these three series. Also, although not the primary planet of the magic and there is no main novel for it yet, aethers and its explosive potential are explored here.
“Now, most people would agree that humans are not telepathic. We can’t directly send our thoughts or emotions into the minds of others. Nevertheless, you can hear my story and imagine the things I describe—the same as I picture them in my own mind. What is that, if not a form of telepathy?”
One more thing before I end this review. I will update this once I have the physical copy, but right now, even the ebook of the premium edition alone is exquisitely made. Unless the paper quality of the physical copy sucks, which is so doubtful, I can vouch that the $40 I spent on getting this book is well spent. Maybe too well spent. It is almost ridiculous. You won’t get a premium/special edition like this with only $40 anywhere else. If Subterranean Press or Grim Oak Press publishes a book like this, I guarantee it will cost at least $200 (not counting the shipping fee and customs fee yet). The stunning design and the more than ten interior artworks (four fully colored art and the rest in green-toned black and white) by Howard Lyon enhanced the quality of the aesthetic and the tale. They are magnificent. And I am brimming with excitement waiting for the physical copy to arrive at my place. And if the first secret novel already reaches this level of production value, I want to read and find out what the other three will look like. I will share only two interior artworks below to give you an example of the fully colored and the green-toned black-and-white art. Rest assured, in this review, I leave out some surprises in the clever design and artwork inside this book for you to find out for yourself.
Picture: Sipping Salty Tea by Howard Lyon
Picture: Tress at the Wheel by Howard Lyon
“One of the great tragedies of life is knowing how many people in the world are made to soar, paint, sing, or steer— except they never get the chance to find out.”
Whether aesthetically or narrative-wise, Tress of the Emerald Sea provided a whimsical and wonderful reading experience. It is a refreshing addition to the Cosmere universe. And it is essentially (at least, it read like one) a Cosmere version of an adult fairy tale. With the success of the secret projects, some readers might think Sanderson favors quantity instead of quality in his books recently. It is up to you to think that way, but I can’t voice the same sentiment. Personally speaking, Tress of the Emerald Sea doesn’t show any drop in storytelling quality. Every book in the Cosmere, including this that he wrote in secret, works amazingly well for me. Similarly to the first Mistborn trilogy, even though this is undoubtedly a different kind of book, I think Tress of the Emerald Sea is a standalone story that can be enjoyed by both YA or adult fantasy readers. Making this even more appealing to a bigger audience. This is a superb first book of 2023 for me, and I hope this signals the positive trajectory of my reading year. I look forward to receiving the physical copy and reading the next secret novel.
“The first is that heroes can be trained. Not by a government or a military, but by the people themselves. Heroes are the ones who have thought about what they’re going to do, and who have trained to do it. Heroism is often the seemingly spontaneous result of a lifetime of preparation… In the frenzied anarchy of destruction, loyalty to causes and kingdoms alike tends to fall to the chaos. But the bond between people, well, that’s stronger than steel. If you want to create heroes, don’t give them something to fight for. Give them someone to fight for.”
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