Tress of the Emerald Sea by Brandon Sanderson: A Review for Writers

Whenever I read a book, I try to look for what I can learn as a writer. That’s what these reviews for writers are about. I have learned a lot from Brandon Sanderson. This is partly because I’ve been listening to his podcast, Writing Excuses, for almost six years, and partly because his books inspired me to write fantasy again.

Each book has taught me something about writing, and Tress of the Emerald Sea taught me some things I didn’t expect.

This review will contain minor spoilers about the basic plot, but I will not give away anything that I wouldn’t have wanted to know before reading it.

1. The “active” narrator

I am a big fan of literary fiction partly because of the unique way many authors share insight and truth through their narrators, but I don’t see this often in fantasy or other genres. Most books that I read today are told in second-person limited and strictly follow the plot. Even first-person narration in genre fiction often strays away from sharing thoughts. “Show don’t tell” is the rule many genre writers live by. I do still see the “active” narrator in some children’s literature. The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill is filled with wisdom, for instance.

By making Hoid, a comedic recurring character, the narrator of Tress, Sanderson gave the novel a literary feel (although a humorous one). Hoid can tell you the inner-workings of different characters in much the same way that Hugo or Dickens or Austen could. This also allows him to give voice to many bits of wisdom that a less active narrator couldn’t include.

While this can be annoying to some, I think it worked well because we already know and love Hoid. It was refreshing to read a book with an active narrator who could break the “show don’t tell” rule by telling us some stuff in an entertaining way. It reminded me that there is still room for this kind of narration even in the genre space. While it wouldn’t work for every story, I think it worked particularly well to give the story a funnier tone.

2. Sell your labor, not your mind

I wrote about this fantastic quote in a previous post. Sanderson, as Hoid, makes a suggestion for writers: don’t choose jobs that use up all of your brain power. Manual jobs are more likely to leave you room to think and imagine. While this won’t be true for everyone, it’s because of this mindset that I quit teaching.

3. Female characters don’t have to be “perfect”

Sanderson has written many female characters, but I think Tress may be my new favorite. To compensate for the lack of good female characters in fiction, many authors and filmmakers have overcompensated by making them too perfect. Women aren’t allowed to fail, and many are overpowered without explanation. Women aren’t allowed to be helped by men, and they aren’t allowed to show weakness (sometimes it feels like writers decided that the only way to make female characters interesting is to make them more like generic male characters). I know this is a generalization, but I’m sure you can think of some examples.

Tress is brave and a fast learner, but, like all humans, she isn’t always brave, and she isn’t always quick-thinking. She is able to be rescued at times, and she is able to rescue at other times. She’s not defined by her gender, but she’s also not a male replacement. In fact, one of her strengths is her (traditionally feminine) trait of empathy, non-violence, and desire to help others. She is dynamic, and so are the other women in the story.

I noted in my review for readers that one of the things I loved about the story was the equal balance of men and women. This simple but effective representation certainly doesn’t replace a good plot (as we have seen in Hollywood), but it does more accurately represent the real world. Each woman was uniquely skilled and flawed as well. I also appreciated that no one was talked down to for being a woman. We have seen that trope enough. It is always refreshing to me to read a story where women just get to be women without having to prove themselves to men.

4. It’s not the plot that keeps you reading

This one hit me about half way through the book, and it may be the most important.

For a long time, I have had the impression that my goal as a writer was to pull the reader along with plot. As long as the reader wanted to know what happened next, they would keep reading.

But the truth is that, in this book and in many others, I have a pretty good idea throughout where the story will go. This is because most books are plotted in a way that is generally satisfying, and we as readers have expectations about what will satisfy us. I could tell from the tone of the book that this would very likely have a happy ending. If I’m reading a horror novel, on the other hand, I can expect the opposite, but that is still an expectation that the writer must meet in some way.

So if we know what’s going to happen, why do we keep reading?

I think there are three main reasons, though there are likely more.

1. We don’t know how things will happen

The more dire the situation for the characters becomes, the harder it is for the reader to figure out how they will succeed. Even though we know they will succeed, we want to see them do it. We want to be surprised by their creativity and bravery. We want to see how all of the pieces laid out by the author will come together. We want what has been termed the “Sanderlanch” ending where your understanding of those pieces is flipped upside down with a fantastic twist.

The same ending that you expected occurs, but it doesn’t happen in the way you expect, and that’s what you expect and why you keep reading.

2. We love the characters

Characters, in my opinion, are more important than plot. And yet when I sit down to write, I struggle to let my characters breath. I move them from plot point to plot point like chess figures. But if we aren’t reading just for plot, then the characters should not just breathe within the plot but exist extraneous to the plot.

In Tress, the characters are fun to read about. I wanted to hear them talk. I wanted to know more about their backstory and interests. I wondered what funny or wise thing they would say next. Most of all, I wanted to see them grow. Good characters have a problem, and it is satisfying to watch them overcome it in surprising ways.

As I write, then, I want to give my characters more room to simply be–to talk, to think, to play, to learn, to grow.

3. We love the voice

I already discussed how fun it is to read Hoid’s voice, but this one is true for any kind of narrator. Most of Sanderson’s books that I have read are not told in first-person (save Steelheart), but I still enjoy reading them. I think this has to do with how a book makes you feel when you pick it up. ways. We might read for humor and lightness or horror and heaviness. We might read for immersive descriptions or fast-paced suspense. Something about the voice pulls us in and makes us want to keep reading.

Like I said, a lot of genre fiction doesn’t strive to have a strong voice. But how can we still use voice to make our readers feel something special? What mood or emotion do we want to convey?

C. S. Lewis shared in On Stories that his story ideas sprouted from an image. Narnia, for instance, came from a single image of a fawn holding an umbrella under a lantern.

So it may sound strange to think about, but what is the aesthetic or “color palette” of your story? What would the book cover look like? What is that “image” that captures the feeling of the book, and how can the narration spark that feeling?

I’m sure there’s plenty more to learn from this book. As we read this year, let’s be more intentional about looking for inspiration from the authors we love. This is an important skill that will help us improve our own writing.

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