Brandon Sanderson – Tress of the Emerald Sea (2023) Review


If you are a Sanderson fan, this review might insult you, but I did get some enjoyment out of this novel. 

Tress of the Emerald Sea (shall we call it TOTES?) is one of Brandon Sanderson’s secret Covid-novels. One of five books that he wrote because he was bored cooped up at home during the pandemic. And in this book, Sanderson takes a swing at writing a comedic fairy-tale in the style of William Golding’s The Princess Bride (1973), aiming to write something like it but with a female protagonist who has more agency, and coupling that with some narrative flourishes in the style of Pratchett and Gaiman’s Good Omens (1990). Those are big shoes to fill. But Sanderson’s popularity as a fantasy writer is beyond question so let’s see whether he pulls it off. (Spoiler: he didn’t.)

So, Tress is a young woman and protagonist of the story, but the story is actually narrated not by Tress herself but by a character named Hoid. Now, I am not overly familiar with Sanderson’s novels, having only read the first three of his Stormlight Archive books, so consider this a review by a non-Sanderson infidel, but I know that Hoid appears in many of his Cosmere novels. Hoid is what Sanderson calls a worldhopper and shows up willy-nilly in all sorts of places. Hoid is a witty, sarcastic sort of fellow, and in this book he tells the story of Tress in a very conversational way to an unknown listener, occasionally preempting the listener and showing signs of inebriation. Hence the comedic tone. 

I have some major complaints about this novel and I will go into them later in juicy detail because that is what I like doing, but first I want to express that this is a perfectly respectable, lighthearted adventure story aimed at young adults, and is entertaining enough. It’s about a young woman named Tress who lives on a barren island and falls in love with the Duke’s son Charles. When the son is sent away and ends up in the hands of a dangerous sorceress far overseas, Tress undertakes a journey to find him. On her journey she has to deal with smugglers, pirates, a dragon, a talking rat modelled on Reepicheep, and more. 

Here are some more things that I appreciated, because there is some effective storytelling in the novel. The slow blossoming of love between Tress and Charles, which was cute. The characterisation of Tress’s father Lem. How supportive he was of her and how he was part of the small town world where people called on each other for favours. The quartermaster Fort with his talking board because he couldn’t speak. And the imagery of a planet with different coloured seas. 

My first complaint is that I don’t find Sanderson funny. It is nails on a chalkboard for me. Where Pratchett and Golding stand at the top of the ladder of comedic fantasy stardom, Sanderson breaks through the first rung and falls flat on his face. This is a matter of personal taste, of course. But I think that I can also make a case that Sanderson’s efforts at being funny leads to him writing confusing prose, with imagery and word choice that raises confusion in me instead of laughter. Confusion about the tone and the worldbuilding and what is actually being depicted. Here are some example sentences: “Dominating your view, like a wart on your eyeball.” “The place was so inhospitable, even the smog found it depressing.” “The duke and his family had joined them, and were far enough away that any scowls would lose their potency due to wind resistance and gravitational drop.” “Crow passed up opportunities to cause physical pain about as often as banks provide free samples.” Did that make you frown or smile?

Sanderson’s prose has been praised for its clearness and simplicity, for its not interposing itself between the reader and the story. In this novel, I found that very much not the case. See above examples, but also another thing he does is squeezing out all the juice from a joke. There is a scene where Tress is very hungry and is given the leftovers of a meal, and for page upon page upon page after that, the words “meal” and “food” are in quotations marks. I think we got it the first time, Brandon.

Sanderson has been on a trajectory for years of going wild with world-building and “magic systems”, to the point that his magic feels like science. In this novel, he comes up with an elaborate system that involves a whole solar system and stationary moons. With that, he edges his way into science fiction, raising the spectre of science-fictional expectations that the world in this novel shows at least some verisimilitude with known physics. This is where my second complaint comes from. 

To be specific, Tress lives on a planet that is surrounded by twelve stationary moons that continuously rain down spores (are they trying to procreate?), and those spores form oceans that are fluidised by vents of air from the ocean floors (air from the ocean floors?) and those spores react violently and deadly when they come into contact with water (water?). Water is such a ubiquitous element and rather vital for human life that I get very confused at how this world even supports life. Or agriculture. Does it ever rain? And how there can be any humans living on it without immediately reacting with the spores and dying. How come there are aquifers but no water on the bottom of the ocean? Oh, it does rain but always at the same time and place (because otherwise the story doesn’t work). Why? Don’t think about it. Sanderson tries to explain many of these things and the explanations feel tortuous. For a Princess Bride retelling, it all seems a bit complicated. All these questions distract me from enjoying the story. It’s like a magic system expanding so much that now it has to take into account real planetary science, where Sanderson has to give more and more handwavey explanations until he literally tells us to stop being boring. He brought that trouble upon himself.

Towards the second half, things improve. Tress’s journey begins to take shape as she sails the spore seas. Side characters come into focus, there is more and more fun magic with various types of spores as Sanderson begins to explore the possibilities of his magic system, and the humor is toned down a bit. All of that helped me a lot. The ending is quite solid too but for me it was all a bit too saccharine and too many elements in this story bothered me, and so I couldn’t fully enjoy it. But it isn’t bad per se.

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20 Responses to Brandon Sanderson – Tress of the Emerald Sea (2023) Review

  1. Bookstooge says:

    I tend to agree with you that Sanderson has taken the idea of world building to ridiculous lengths, to the point where many people would rather read that than an actual story.

    I am rather surprised to see you reading this though. You’ve always been very negative on Sanderson so I figured you’d just avoid him. What drew you to read this?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Haha, I figured that no one expected me to review a Sanderson book. I’d like to surprise people now and then. I don’t hate him. He doesn’t insult me. I merely find him a bit childish and uninteresting. This book though sounded like it could be interesting, and I wanted to keep an open mind about Sanderson.

      The fourth Stormlight Archive goes really deep into the magic system, I’ve heard, to the point that I’ve heard many negative reactions from Sanderson readers that he’s taking it too far to the detriment of the story.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. peatlong says:

    You know, you were tempting me into giving this a go until you posted this…

    “My first complaint is that I don’t find Sanderson funny. It is nails on a chalkboard for me.”

    And reminded me that I felt the exact same way. So… maybe I will? But yeah. Pretty big barrier for this sort of book.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. M. says:

    I’ll not give this a shot then. I’ve been meaning to give Sanderson a try at some point, but I need to find something of his that isn’t part of a series.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. With my apologies to all Sanderson fans, I have to admit that I tried a few times to read one of his books (the first in the Stormlight Archive for the record) and had to give up after a handful of chapters because his prose was too… rich forme (for want of a better word). I’m glad you managed to enjoy – more or less – this shorter work 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  5. ReadRenard says:

    I came because I was curious about the book, but stayed (with popcorn!) for the Sanderson diss LOL I’ve only read Elantris (yay for standalones), so I never formed a solid opinion about him. I love Princess Bride, so maybe I’ll try this!

    Liked by 1 person

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