REVIEW: Tress of the Emerald Sea

This review is spoiler-free.

Last year, fantasy monolith Brandon Sanderson revealed that he’d been cheating on fans of his in-progress series by writing even more books. This culminated in a record-breaking Kickstarter which raised millions of dollars to fund four new novels in high quality premium editions.

As a complete and total Sanderson fanboy, obviously I bought in. Fair warning, this review is spoiler-free, but it is not unbiased. I’ve loved Sanderson’s work ever since discovering it through the announcement that he’d be completing Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. I go in to any new work by him pretty optimistic that I’m going to like the book. He’s earned a lot of faith in the quality of his work by consistently delivering good stuff.

And, in short, I’d say Tress does so again.

Tress of the Emerald Sea is a lighthearted fairytale romance, perfect for unwinding on vacation (as I did), or relaxing with on the weekend. The story is about how Tress is forced to leave her home on a small isle called “the Rock” to save the love of her life, Charlie, who has been kidnapped by the mysterious Sorceress. Her journey across the multicolor seas of spores fallen from the moons is narrated with a charmingly whimsical voice. Tress moves from challenge to challenge in an Odyssey to find her emotional home.

As this rough summary may indicate, Tress consciously subverts fairytale tropes like rescuing princesses. What I really appreciated about the book, though, was that it manages to be more complex than “the girl saves the prince.” Tress really is not a terribly capable character—well, at first—and that’s a huge piece of the story’s charm. Her virtues are persistence, and love. She doesn’t have magic powers, she doesn’t have a secret background, she’s not a master fighter. Tress is ordinary, and honestly I think that’s why I fell in love with the story.

Ordinary doesn’t mean boring, and ordinary doesn’t mean irrelevant.

The setting of Tress is quite interesting. It’s a world in Sanderson’s Cosmere, though one I don’t recognize. As usual Sanderson introduces some new magic to go along with this world. In this case, the tiny spores which fall from the planet’s moons can be rehydrated to do crazy stuff, like grow plants or spires of glass. This makes water—especially bodily fluids—dangerous, yet still necessary. Each sea is a different color, and has spores with different effects.

This tangles well with the plot as Tress learns to manipulate different spores, growing in creativity and confidence along the way. There’s a nice development of plot twists, character growth, and new details discovered about the setting. Moving from sea to sea adds a feeling of progress to the story.

Each transition to a new sea is heralded in the premium hardcover by a change in colors used for decoration, and illustration. Speaking as someone who tries to make beautiful books, many people have spent an awful lot of time creating this one. It shows. Tress of the Emerald Sea is gorgeously illustrated and presented, with lots of little touches throughout the volume. Of course, premium production isn’t important to every reader, and doesn’t outweigh bad writing. But when it’s combined with a good story, it’s exceptionally nice.

Hey, speaking of pretty books, want to check out one of my own? My adventure To Hunt a God for Chaosium’s tabletop game RuneQuest is chock full of illustrations accompanying a story in which the players negotiate with nature spirits, duel dangerous rivals, and quest to perform a terrifying act of divine euthanasia! Plus, picking up one of my books is a great way to support the reviews, stories, and other writing which goes up here each week.

I can’t say my favorite piece, because that would be a spoiler. But, there’s lots and lots of good art, and pretty much all of it felt like it added to my reading experience. My favorite small touch is that the endpapers have a small change from the front of the book, to the back of the book. It’s the kind of little detail the team at Dragonsteel never needed to do, but which makes the book all the more lovely.

My only criticism of Tress is that I felt the story ended a bit too easily. There’s a slight element of deus ex machina to the resolution and, while it’s hardly a total wash, I do wonder if the climax’s resolution needed a tweak. However, to quote Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive, “journey before destination.” And this is a book where the journey’s fun, and the point of the story, I think. I didn’t feel cheated or grouchy about the end; it could just be tweaked a bit.

Overall, I’d recommend this book to pretty much anyone who likes fantasy. The premium version—if it’s available still on Dragonsteel’s web store—may not be for every reader due to the cost, but if like me you enjoy pretty books, it’s a good choice. Otherwise Tress is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and so on and so forth. If you’ve got a local bookstore hit them up first because hey, independent stores are awesome.

Until next time, then.

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