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Posted on 11 Apr 2023 in Fiction, SFF |

BRANDON SANDERSON Tress of the Emerald Sea. Reviewed by Amelia Dudley

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The first of Brandon Sanderson’s ‘secret novels’ delivers a resourceful heroine on an epic quest.

During the pandemic, prolific fantasy author Brandon Sanderson found he had more time on his hands and, as he puts it, ‘Brandon + Time = Stories‘. He set up a Kickstarter campaign last year to publish his four ‘secret novels’ – standalone stories that he initially wrote in secret during lockdown, just for himself and his wife and not part of anything that had been promised to his publisher. For Kickstarter backers, these books come as hardcovers with lavish illustrations (or audiobooks or ebooks if one is Australian and too frugal to pay for international shipping four times), organised by his team at Dragonsteel Entertainment. Tress of the Emerald Sea is the first of these to now be available in bookstores, alas without the gorgeous illustrations.

Tress lives a quiet life on a small island, making ends meet for her parents and younger brother on a tight budget. But everything is turned upside down when her sweetheart Charlie is taken captive by the wicked Sorceress of the distant Midnight Sea. His father, the local baron, shows no interest in paying the ransom, so Tress realises it’s up to her to help Charlie. Her quest sees her befriend a talking rat, get captured by pirates, and learn more about the magical spores of her world’s seas than she ever wanted to know. But will her newfound freedom and hard-won skills be enough to even reach Charlie? All Tress knows is that she has to try.

It’s always enjoyable to have the wool pulled over your eyes in Sanderson’s stories and then catalogue all the clues you overlooked. Guessing anything correctly, however minor, is always an achievement.

As with many of his novels, including the Mistborn series and the Stormlight Archive, this one is set in a shared universe dubbed the Cosmere. For readers on the lookout for such things, there are intriguing little references to novels set in the wider Cosmere, but Tress of the Emerald Sea could easily be read as an introduction to Sanderson’s work. The extra details can work as simply another part of the impressive world-building, without spoiling anything major.

There’s a chatty, humorous narrator who Cosmere readers will recognise:

… what she lacked in formal training, she more than made up for by being the type of person who used oven mitts even when a pot has been given time to cool down.

He switches from being funny to wise and back again in a heartbeat:

What else would she have never known about herself, if she hadn’t left her home island? Worse, how many people like her lived in ignorance, lacking the experience to fully explore their own existence? It is one of the most bitter ironies I’ve ever had to accept: there are, unquestionably, musical geniuses of incomparable talent who died as street sweepers because they never had the chance to pick up an instrument.

Magic is handled with Sanderson’s trademark scientific approach, with everything about how it works meticulously thought out. The spore seas are absolutely fascinating. When authors take the time to research a bit of physics it is always something to be appreciated.

While reading Sanderson’s other work, I never felt there was a drop in quality or a moment where I thought: ‘Gosh, the pressure’s really gotten to him,’ even though his output is extraordinary. However, it is clear that Tress of the Emerald Sea has brought back his love of writing; and there’s something very special about that. There’s a playfulness in it that makes it  easy to imagine it must have been fun to write. A lot of his books have that feeling but this one took it further somehow.

Sanderson has compared Tress of the Emerald Sea to The Princess Bride for tonal reasons and because of an author’s note that I won’t relay here, to avoid spoilers. Even if there were no cute references to another classic story, it’s still a fantastic tale in its own right. Although it was written for adults, the whimsical feel is also similar to some of Terry Pratchett’s books for younger readers, particularly the Tiffany Aching novels, and Catherynne M Valente’s Fairyland series. These kinds of adventure stories for adults share a kind of magic and can pretend to be a bit silly and a bit naïve just so they can go for the jugular when there’s a twist.

It’s a really beautiful story and Tress is such a kind-hearted, resourceful heroine. I already want to read it again.

Brandon Sanderson Tress of the Emerald Sea Orion 2023 PB 384pp $32.99

Amelia Dudley has degrees in plant biology and currently works as a tutor.

You can buy Tress of the Emerald Sea from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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