REVIEW: TRESS OF THE EMERALD SEA (SECRET PROJECT #1)
A sea quite unlike the one you might imagine...
As the first of "Brando Sando's" Secret Projects and a beautiful hardcover edition, I impulse-bought this one pretty much as soon as it became available through Dragonsteel's website (I did not back the Kickstarter). As the summer came to a close, I thought a seafaring fantasy would be the perfect way to say farewell to the season, so I finally gave this a read.
HOW I RATED IT
4/5 I wouldn't say that "TRESS" is Sanderson's best or deepest piece of fiction, but I did find it to be a rather enjoyable voyage through an inventive world with vibrant characters and some fun narrative turns.
Our story starts with Tress, who's a girl that might not meet your expectations in that she really is like other girls, as long as those girls care deeply for their family, want to find that special someone who completes them, and have a fondness for collecting cups. Although her origins are humble and she may not be one of the "unstoppable girl bosses" that Hollywood seems to love right now, she still goes on quite the adventure and manages to pull off some incredible feats along the way. I very much enjoyed Tress's personal arc as she realizes that she has a calling which she must respond to. Her journey is fraught with haphazard plans, silly blunders, and some heavy moral choices. I think her story is one that many of us can relate to in many ways. Most of us aren't super heroes or battle mages or whatever else and I found it deeply enjoyable to read the story of someone who isn't all that extraordinary, yet still manages to become just that through her empathy for those around her and determination to do the right thing. I'd honestly love to see more characters like Tress in fantasy literature.
Although this is Tress's story, it is actually told from the tongue-in-cheek perspective of Hoid/Wit. I think this is one aspect that may make or break the whole reading experience for people. Hoid's humor doesn't bother me too much, but it is objectively quite cringey at times and there were moments where it took me a second to understand that there was even a joke woven into his narration since some of his commentary can be rather obtuse. That said, I think one of the positive sides of the story being told through his lens is that he has a brutally honest portrayal of Tress and her colorful companions. The way that each of the crewmembers' little quirks and idiosyncrasies are handled felt authentic and usually funny in the way that real-life people can be kind of funny. Part of the joy of this book is forming the relationships with different side characters alongside Tress, so I don't want to mention specific examples, but I will say that I found this to be a really enjoyable part of the adventure.
The story begins with showing us a little slice of Tress's life on a tiny island set in the middle of the Emerald Sea. It is quickly explained that this is not a sea like the one we might be imagining. Instead, it is a sea made up of tiny spores that ebb and flow with an undercurrent of air. When wet, the spores explode into destructive and deadly vines or crystals. Some even turn into monsters. Much of the "magic" in this world is based on these spores. They are considered dangerous and are commonly feared since one wrong move can result in your body becoming devoured by the substances that the spores burst into. It's rather horrific and somewhat graphic for Sanderson, though maybe less so than the affliction that is described in his debut novel, ELANTRIS. Tress, of course, finds herself in the precarious position of needing to learn how to put spores to good use and seeing her experiment with them was quite fun. It felt more like a hard science system than a magic system, but deeply compelling all the same. Despite these seas being decidedly dry, I loved the nautical aspects of the story and worldbuilding. It seems the world is divided into island nations of greatly varying sizes and cultures. It was interesting to hear about how cautiously they live when it comes to the spores. I also enjoyed the explanations of some of the safety measures that ships take when it comes to being out in the middle of the spore-filled seas. I think it might have been nice to have stopped of at some of the islands along the way, but that wasn't really the point of the story. Instead, we get to see the different seas and gain an understanding for why some are more dangerous than others. It was good fun and the location of the story's climax was rather surprising in spite of how we knew this was our destination all along.
The plot may seem simple enough at first. After we get to know Tress and have some establishing scenes of her budding romance with a boy named Charlie (who pretends to be a commoner, but Tress knows he's the Duke's son), we are then met with an incident that separates the two. Things get even more dire when Charlie's parents return without him and Tress learns that he has been kidnapped by a dreaded sorceress that lives in the Midnight Sea - a place no one wants to sail. When it becomes clear to Tress that no one else is going to lift a finger to save Charlie, she decides to set out and do it herself even though she has lived a rather sheltered life and there is little that she really knows of the broader world. One unfortunate turn leads to another which leads to her and a tiny little animal companion ending up on a pirate ship. She has to figure out how to navigate the dangers of being a crew member aboard such a ship while also rearranging her plans to ensure that she somehow reaches the sorceress's fortress. This is one of those stories that really is about the journey. A big part of what kept me engaged were all the smaller, more personal stories that each of the crew members had. The relationships that Tress forms with them and seeing how she tries to help with their struggles made for rather endearing subplots and these are probably the moments in the book that will stand out most to me. There were also some fun scenes depicting naval combat and general strife. These don't get as crazy as something from the MISTBORN or THE STORMLIGHT ARCHIVE series, but they were exciting in their own way. One thing that bothered me a little is that because so much of the story is spent trying to get to Charlie, we have a fairly limited number of scenes where Tress interacts with him. The way that this was all handled in the story's final act though really flipped that complaint on it's head and made me appreciate what Sanderson did with this relationship. One word of caution to readers is that there are a fair number of Cosmere references strewn in throughout. I think you could still enjoy the story well enough without this knowledge, but I also think that there are some moments toward the end which will land different. I think this may have also given me some vague spoilers for MISTBORN (Era Two) as well as maybe THE STORMLIGHT ARCHIVE, but it's hard to say since I am only partway through both.
HARDCOVER AND AUDIOBOOK
I hybrid-read this on both the Audio edition and the Dragonsteel hardcover since I'd splurged and got the bundle that included both. To state the obvious: the hardcover edition is absolutely stunning. The foiled cover, the high-grade paper quality, the stunning full color images, the black and white illustrations, and even some intricate artwork gracing the chapter headings and part dividers made for a truly luxurious reading experience. Given the elaborate formatting, this book is actually a deceptively quick read. I made this quicker for myself by reading parts of it on audio and I enjoyed this experience as well. I know not everyone enjoys Kramer's performance, but I though it worked well here. In some ways, I actually think his narration made the humor work a bit better for me. Maybe it's just because I am used to Kramer voicing Hoid in THE STORMLIGHT ARCHIVE, but I definitely noticed myself smirking more during the audio when I was rolling my eyes or softly sighing at similar jokes while physically reading. A less positive part of my audio experience had more to do with Spotify's audiobook features. While I really respect Sanderson for trying to mitigate Audible's soft monopoly on the audiobook market, my listening experience with Tress really highlighted how other companies need to step it up if they want to have any hope of offering meaningful competition. Multiple times, the book would skip around to a random chapter as if it was trying to play the book like a playlist on shuffle. This would only happen some of the time, but it could be an especially big deal when I tried to listen to it in the car. I want to support reducing Audible's chokehold on audiobooks, but at the same time, I will be rather hesitant to purchase from Spotify since it seems like they need to put a little more work into the basic features of audiobook playback.
If you're looking for something lighthearted and adventurous, then I think TRESS OF THE EMERALD SEA may just be a good time for you. It's not the most complex or even the most laugh-out-loud funny book on the market, but it's quite wholesome in many ways and has a lot of heart. If you go in with little to no expectations, then I think this one might just be a delight.
(+) Tress is a deeply relatable and easily loveable character
(+) The concept of seas that don't have any liquid in them was fascinating
(+) Side characters are all fantasic
(+) Some interesting connections and references to the greater Cosmere
(+) Satisfying twists and turns near the end
(+) A fun journey that leans into some of Sanderson's strengths
(+) The Dragonsteel hardcover is stunning and I have no regrets on my purchase
(-) The humor is likely not going to jive with everyone
(-) You may want to pick this one up after you've explored different series in Sanderson's Cosmere in order to fully appreciate it