Tress of the Emerald Sea


The story follows Tress, a girl living on an island in the middle of an ocean of green pollen, one of twelve covering her home planet. An impoverished window-washer and an avid collector of cups, Tress is friends with Charlie, who pretends to be the groundskeeper for the duke that rules the island while in actuality is his son. Over time, Tress and Charlie realize they have feelings for each other and confess. Unfortunately, the duke sees this, and shortly after takes Charlie with him to other islands to marry him off to a princess.

Before his departure, Charlie promises to fend off all the suitors and send Tress letters and cups. She receives four of them before Charlie falls silent, so when his ship returns, she ventures out to see what became of him. However, the duke brings back a different heir, while Charlie appears to have disappeared completely. Tress investigates this and discovers that Charlie was sent off to marry the evil sorceress of the Midnight Sea, and was subsequently captured. Despite the sorceress sending a ransom note, no one is interested in paying. Realizing that everyone but her has put Charlie out of their minds, Tress decides to set out and rescue him herself.


A world where people sail upon powder or dust, instead of water. A way to start introducing the aethers to people as a cosmere magic. And the basic premise: What if Buttercup were more proactive?

Brandon Sanderson

Sanderson wrote Tress of the Emerald Sea in secret, telling no one except his wife, Emily, for whom it was a gift. Since he wasn’t doing any touring in 2020, he had more writing time, and so Tress was created along with four other books.

The story was directly inspired by The Princess Bride. Emily was dissatisfied with Princess Buttercup’s passive attitude, eventually asking why she sat and did nothing when her love was kidnapped by pirates. This gave Brandon the idea of writing a story similar in premise and tone to Princess Bride, but one in which the girl does set out to rescue her love.

The setting of Lumar was a combination of two factors: Brandon’s desire to properly introduce aethers into the cosmere, and his fascination with fluidization, the process by which granular matter such as sand or, in this case pollen, begins to behave like a liquid under the right circumstances.

Story and Discussion

Functionally, the book is written in the form of a verbal story being told by Hoid, a recurring character in many of Sanderson’s books.

Part 1

Chapter 1: The Girl
Plot Summary
  • We meet a girl named Glorf, who goes by Tress because of her wild hair, who lives on a remote island where no one is allowed to leave. We learn that she loves cups and collects them from the various merchants that come to visit.

The cups they brought her were often battered and worn, but Tress didn’t mind. A cup with a chip or ding in it had a story.

Chapter 2: The Groundskeeper
Plot Summary
  • Tress visits the duke’s manor under the guise of washing the windows, even though it’s not the right day for it.
  • Tress visits her friend Charlie, who pretends to be the gardener for the manor, and they talk.

In short, Tress was a normal teenage girl. She knew this because the other girls often mentioned how they weren’t like “everyone else,” and after a while Tress figured that the group “everyone else” must include only her. The other girls were obviously right, as they all knew how to be unique—they were so good at it, in fact, that they did it together.

if you did get captured, I’d help anyway. I’d put on armor, Tress. Shining armor. Or maybe dull armor. I think if someone I knew were captured, I wouldn’t take the time to shine the armor. Do you think those heroes pause to shine it, when people are in danger?

Part 2

Chapter 7: The Father
Plot Summary
  • Lem goes to Brick’s tavern and asks questions that subtly indicate he needs help. Word gets around and the next day three of his friends show up to help Tress. A week later, Tress sneaks onto the Oot’s Dream disguised as a cargo inspector.

Lem was not poor, he simply didn’t have a lot of money…. They remembered that time when Rod had been drunk, and Lem had helped him home. And Jule, when he’d lost his roof during the windstorm, Lem had helped build a new one. There were dozens of similar stories. Lem was the human equivalent of a deep, pure well, always full of water when you needed it. He’d offer what you needed and ask nothing in return. In fact, he’d never bring it up again. Unless it was urgent. Unless it was important. In those cases, well, Lem might have been poor in the kind of currency that paid taxes. But he was downright wealthy when it came to the kind of currency that mattered.

Word got around that night. Lem needed something, specifically from Gremmy, Sor, and Brick. Lem—the man with no debt—needed this favor so badly, he almost asked for it. In the language of men like these, that’s the equivalent of begging. … Decisions were reached, but not spoken. They didn’t need to be, for the next morning—too early for any of them—Tress found the barkeep, the dockmaster, and the dockworker on her doorstep. They demanded to help her in whatever she was doing.

Evenings at the tavern, as you know, are like fires in a hearth. They live two lives. There’s the part where they’re roaring, festive, and cheerful. Then the evening begins to drift. The tavern becomes colder, darker, and quieter. Those who populate the tavern during its second life don’t want companionship. Just company.

  • Talk about the importance of building relationships and helping others in advance, when you don’t need anything, so that when you do they’ll be willing to help.
  • Don’t only put effort into a relationship when you need something! Adam’s pet peeve!

Part 3

Chapter 20: The Helmswoman
Plot Summary
  • Tress puts the first part of her escape plan into action by convincing the captain to put into a port.
  • Salay lets Tress steer the ship for a bit.
Quotes, Talking Points

Whenever one does discover a moment of joy, beauty enters the world. Human beings, we can’t create energy; we can only harness it. We can’t create matter; we can only shape it.

Part 5

Chapter 36: The Explorer
Plot Summary
  • Tress returns to her cabin and can’t help crying. She was trapped on the ship, possibly to be traded to a dragon, and Charlie was still out there, and even if he got away he’d never know what happened to her. Huck returns and tries to console her. He starts to tell her about things he saw on shore, and they discuss whether life was really better when they were younger or if it only seems that way. She realizes she feels a bit better, and starts to ask what she might be able to do about her situation.

Memories have a way of changing on us. Souring or sweetening over time—like a brew we drink, then recreate later by taste, only getting the ingredients mostly right. You can’t taste a memory without tainting it with who you have become.

That inspires me. We each make our own lore, our own legends, every day. Our memories are our ballads, and if we tweak them a little with every performance…well, that’s all in the name of good drama. The past is boring anyway. We always pretend the ideals and culture of the past have aged like wine, but in truth, the ideas of the past tend to age more like biscuits. They simply get stale.

  • Science has theorized that the mere act of remembering an event can have a chemical and physiological change on how that memory is stored in our brain. Do you feel this is true? Is that the reason why we seem to remember the past with rose-colored glasses and forget about the hardships that were present at the time?
  • What about making our own lore and legends every day? How does that make you think about tomorrow, does it inspire you to want to do anything differently?
  • Trauma often has this experience. When we escape trauma we look back on the situation with who we are now, when in reality we have to remember who we were then and not fault ourselves for the decisions we made. We usually did the best we could with the knowledge that was available to us.
  • On changing religious beliefs or relationships, oft times we want to be bitter about past situations that don’t match who we are now. However, we can look back and remember the moment for what it was at the time, a joyous occasion or happy memories in that moment.
  • People who get focused on reliving the glory moments, “gets stale” when then the story is repeated over and over
Chapter 37: The Scholar
Plot Summary
  • Tress starts reading Weev’s notes with a new sense of determination. She comes up with an innovation of bullets with interior structures.
  • She is interrupted by Fort who brings her dinner and to see if she’s alright. She asks if now that she’s the sprouter, could she have non leftovers. Fort awkwardly reveals the food she has been getting is the first servings, not scraps. Everyone on the crew tried cooking after Weev died, and Fort was the least bad at it.

Where she had read, now she studied. Where she had arranged, now she organized. And where she had accepted, now she experimented. Nothing motivates quite like a deadline. Particularly one that emphasizes the dead part.

  • Our efforts change things, we can just read, or we can study. It’s a problem I see in many of my students. They don’t want to make any effort. They try to get by with just reading, when in reality learning takes effort.

A knock came at the door. Such a little interruption. A polite one, of the type Tress associated with her old life. Nonetheless it shattered Tress’s concentration like the thunder of a thousand cannons firing at once. . .she was strangely reluctant to leave her research. That was silly. She had no formal training in academics; her schooling had ended at basic reading and arithmetic. Surely she wasn’t secretly a scholar. A window-washing girl? If she’d been inclined toward research, she’d have realized it before. The truth was, she’d simply never encountered a topic interesting enough—or dangerous enough—to engage her.

  • It’s amazing the concentration and focus. For me, this is a great description of how it feels when I get interrupted during a moment of hyperfocus. It’s like I was in another world for a moment and all those cannons bring confusion and alertness.
  • One of the problems in modern society is that there are so many possibilities to study that it is often hard to narrow down one’s interests. School focuses so much on the breadth of knowledge that we can never gain the depth of knowledge needed.
Chapter 38: The Apprentice
Plot Summary
  • The ship crosses into the Crimson Sea. One of the random rain squalls skirts nearby, sending up 30 food red spikes out of the spores. The ship tacks away to await calmer weather.

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.

  • What opportunities do we miss in our own lives when we are afraid to take chances?
Chapter 39: The Chicken Keeper
Plot Summary
  • Ann shows Tress the aiming cranks, and explains how you need to aim high due to gravity. Ann is enraptured looking at the canon. Tress asks her about it, and Ann says “I think they’re nifty”.
  • Ann goes on about how “culture” is really just what people are into. Even if they’re into (Tress interjects) cups. But it’s not just one cup, it’s how one cup is different from other cups.
  • Tress encourages Ann to take a shot. Ann starts to take aim, but even Tress can tell she’s significantly sideways from the target buoy. Ann tells Tress how to get a flare gun from quartermaster Fort. Tress reflects on how the holes in people can be filled by simple things.

Tress settled down, thinking about people and how the holes in them could be filled by such simple things, like time, or a few words at the right moment. Or, apparently, a cannonball. What, other than a person, could you build up merely by caring?

  • Sometimes a simple smile or a few kinds words at the right moment can be such a force for good in someone’s lives. Why don’t we as a society do this more?
Chapter 42: The Guide
Plot Summary
  • The narrator talks about the role of memories in the construction of self, with a caution that they are harsh masters. As Hoid, he talks about how amazing the views are, as Tress tries to extract information on his curse.
  • She figures out a way to have him talk to her about things she does know, and in pointed silences they are able to create a map to the Sorceress’ island.

Memory is often our only connection to who we used to be. Memories are fossils, the bones left by dead versions of ourselves. More potently, our minds are a hungry audience, craving only the peaks and valleys of experience. The bland erodes, leaving behind the distinctive bits to be remembered again and again.

Painful or passionate, surreal or sublime, we cherish those little rocks of peak experience, polishing them with the ever-smoothing touch of recycled proxy living. In so doing—like pagans praying to a sculpted mud figure—we make of our memories the gods which judge our current lives.

We must take care not to let the bliss of the present fade when compared to supposedly better days. We’re happy, sure, but were we more happy then? If we let it, memory can make shadows of the now, as nothing can match the buttressed legends of our past.

Do not let memory chase you. Enjoy memories, yes, but don’t be a slave to who you wish you once had been.

Those memories aren’t alive. You are.

  • This seems to be another recurring theme of this book – the danger of being so nostalgic that we misremember to the point of it affecting our present lives.
  • One of the main schools of thought in mindfulness is living in the moment, not worrying about the future and not longing for the past. What are your thought about living in the moment?
Chapter 43: The Musician
Plot Summary
  • The narrator discusses whether storms have intentions, or if it’s humans imposing meaning on things, especially where death may be involved.
  • The walls of crimson spikes produce wave like disturbances and Salay’s skill handling the ship is tested, to where it seems she’s playing an instrument. Even the Captain helps carry out Salay’s commands. A final wave breaks onto the deck in quantities that overwhelm the silver, and a crew member is pierced with red spikes. Emergency towels are employed to control the spikes, and the silver counteracts remaining spores. The seethe stops, trapping the ship.

Moments like these bring wind and rain to life. We need purpose; it’s the spiritual conjunction that glues together human existence and human volition. Purpose is so integral to us that we see it everywhere.

Sky gods, making thunder with their shouts or causing lightning to fall with their steps. Winds named and granted different intentions and motives, depending on the direction they blow. Rains withheld, granted, or sent to destroy, depending on the turning of celestial moods.

A storm is not an object like a box or a tree. Even to the more scientifically ­minded, storms are more notion than numbers. When does a drizzle become a downpour, and when does a downpour become a storm? There’s no firm line. It’s about how you feel.

A storm is an idea. It’s much more powerful that way.

  • What do you think – are natural forces like storms completely random, dispassionate phenomena? Or is there some kind of mystical or spiritual aspect to them, or to nature in general?
Chapter 44: The Fallen
Plot Summary
  • The Narrator describes the fallen crew member, Pakson.
  • Tress works on her snare-bullet designs. Two or the four work as planned. She will need to refine them more, but feels like she might be able to surprise Crow.

I implied that I didn’t remember the names of the Dougs. That was a lie—I wanted to keep your focus on the main players of this particular story.

But every person has a story, Dougs included. The one who died was named Pakson; both he and his sister were Dougs on the Crow’s Song. Pakson was tall and awkward on land—the type of man who seemed to have been born with legs a size too large for his torso. He was bald, despite his relative youth, and his neck kind of merged with his chin—to the point that after meeting him, you’d inexplicably get a hankering for a baguette.

He was also unaccountably kind. He was the man who had kept checking on Tress as she clung to the side of the ship. He’d held the rope with several others as Fort pulled her up.

He’d always laughed at meals and thanked Fort for the food, no matter how bad it had tasted. He loved music, but couldn’t play, and had always secretly regretted never learning. I wish I’d been in a state of mind to give him lessons.

Now he had fallen. We gave his corpse to the spores and sailed onward.

Tress felt responsible. Maybe if the ship had waited a few more months out in the Verdant, they wouldn’t have encountered the rains that day. She was terrified that Pakson wouldn’t be the only casualty of her recklessness.

  • Every person has a story, even seemingly unimportant background characters. If it wasn’t for Pakson, this entire story would have been over after a few chapters.
  • What do we do when our decisions interact with tragedy? When we start asking those “what if” questions – what if I had left home sooner, or driven faster? What if I had done this or that, could this tragedy have been prevented?