Would You Turn the Page?

Okay, this time I went to some effort to find a bestselling fantasy novel that is not YA and should not have Hunger Games vibes. At the time I write this, the book I picked is #14 in “Fantasy Adventure Fiction,” which is a big, competitive category. This book has about ten thousand ratings and an average star rating of 4.7.

The author is very well known. I’m betting some of you will have read this. It’s hard to avoid that when it’s a bestselling fantasy novel. For me, the author is somewhat hit or miss, with rather more emphasis on the “miss,” but I haven’t read that many books by this author.

Okay, so, first page:

***

In the middle of the ocean, there was a girl who lived upon a rock.

This was not an ocean like the one you have imagined.

Nor was the rock like the one you have imagined.

The girl, however, might be as you imagined — assuming you imagined her as thoughtful, soft-spoken, and overly fond of collecting cups.

Men often described the girl as having hair the color of wheat. Others called it the color of caramel, or occasionally the color of honey. The girl wondered why men so often used food to describe women’s features. There was a hunger to such men that was best avoided.

In her estimation, “light brown” was sufficiently descriptive — though the hue of her hair was not its most interesting trait. That would be her hair’s unruliness. Each morning, she heroically tamed it with brush and comb, then muzzled it with a ribbon and a tight braid. Yet some strands always found a way to escape and would wave free in the wind, eagerly greeting everyone she passed.

The girl had been given the name of Glorf (don’t judge; it was a family name), but her wild hair earned her the name everyone knew her by: Tress. That moniker, was, in Tress’s estimation, her most interesting feature.

***

What do you think? Did you recognize this right off? If so, did you read the book? And now, looking just at this opening, do you think you would have if you hadn’t known the author?

I didn’t set out to be super critical. Really! I didn’t! But I don’t think much of this opening. This beginning, about the ocean not being like the ocean you think of, nor the rock being like the rock you think of, made the single most familiar opening lines in all of fantasy leap to my mind.

In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

That is literally what I thought of, that this opening is just like the opening of The Hobbit. I immediately felt this was cliched. Except for the line about collecting cups. I liked that.

But opening with a series of VERY short one-sentence paragraphs just struck me as contrived and silly. So did the author speaking directly to the reader, using second person. The use of the parenthetical aside is also second person and also contrived and silly. That can be all right; the author is obviously signaling tone and mood by using this approach. This novel is supposed to be arch and humorous. I don’t like it, but I realize plenty of readers will probably enjoy it. This kind of style is just a hard sell for me personally.

THEN the lines about men describing women with food comparisons — well, as it happens, I have also described characters as having eyes the color of dark honey; is that okay? I’m feeling defensive and annoyed. I realize that may not be a common reaction. It seems to me that “dark honey” is not the same as “light brown,” by the way. If you want a more translucent golden-brown, that is actually like honey, not like generic “light brown.”

But you know what I am now primed to notice? That THIS author is describing women’s features in terms of wild animals. Is THAT okay? Is there some reason THAT is better? At least in part because I’m feeling peeved at this criticism of using honey and wheat as descriptive terms, I’m really intolerant of this type of wild-beast description. Also, the metaphor of “eager greeting” looks really stupid to me. I know! I’m annoyed! That’s making me extra critical!

Anyway, this is Tress of the Emerald Sea by Brandon Sanderson.

I picked up an ebook of this book at World Fantasy Convention last year, but now it’s sliding down my TBR pile. I definitely am not in a mood to turn the page at this point. Part of that is, I realize, just me. But I really don’t like this first page at all.

Opinions? And, if you’ve read it, thumbs up or down on the book overall?

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19 thoughts on “Would You Turn the Page?”

  1. I keep trying to read Sanderson, because he has such a huge backlist, but I have failed to finish all but one of them so far. I agree that “eagerly greeting” seems very odd.

  2. I started reading it, but I didn’t get far. I’m not sure I’ve read any of Sanderson’s books through.

  3. I read it, and I enjoyed it a great deal. I’ve only read a couple of his other books, so I don’t have much to compare it to. But this feels different from those.

    If you go on with the book, you’ll discover there’s a reason for why it’s being told in the style it is. But if that style isn’t working for you now, I don’t think you would enjoy reading more of it. I do think it’s a fun book, though.

  4. I liked Steelheart when I was reading it, but I didn’t think too highly of it. Extreme character stupidity is major, major feature of that story and I could just barely manage to ignore that. I really liked The Emperor’s Soul, no caveats.

  5. The ocean is certainly not at all a normal ocean, and I actually love the setting for Tress.
    I’m pretty sure this story was an homage to some very famous fantasies, including The Hobbit and The Princess Bride, so the similarities were deliberate.
    I enjoyed this one, partly because I’ve read a decent amount of his stories and the tone was similar enough to his MG Alcatraz vs. series that I knew it would likely be a light read, which I happened to be in the mood for, and partly because I liked Tress as a character. Oh, and there’s definitely a reason for the POV.

  6. It feels both twee and overfamiliar to me, I had sampled this one before when it had come out and decided not to proceed based on the sample. The only Sanderson I’ve read is The Emperor’s Soul which I’m afraid didn’t work quite as well for me– to be as vague as I can, the tone of it had set me up for a certain kind of resolution and I felt the twist ending was something of a cop-out (I need a twist to be _more_ interesting than what I was expecting!)

    Two books I have recently picked up after hearing praise for their writing but haven’t read yet are The Saint of Bright Doors by Vajra Chandrasekera and The Spear Cuts Through Water by Simon Jimenez, I would suggest Martha Wells’ Witch King as an opening that really caught me also (though I would note that Witch King has an on-page death of a child in an accident in an early chapter that might be tough for some readers, it’s a bit darker than Murderbot but a split timeline where the primary focus is rebuilding the world after the war which is not shown on screen).

  7. I’m not sure what ‘twee’ means, but I think it likely expresses my state of mind when reading this. I don’t like the tone, and won’t like it better if I read on.

  8. I have not read anything by Sanderson. Can’t remember if I tried something and didn’t like it or never tried. I actually rather like the feel of this and have put the ebook on hold at my library. I can’t put a finger on why, except I know that the line for things I enjoy can overlap what other people find twee.

  9. Okay, I read “twee” as meaning basically the same thing as “overly cutesy.” I think with regard to this particular first page, I would say, “self-consciously overly cutesy,” which is also kind of what I mean by “arch.”

    Agree/disagree? Is this what “twee” means?

  10. I’ve read a lot of Sanderson and Tress isn’t his best. I’ve noticed with a couple of his recent works that the tone and humour are a bit laddish. I suspect he has an inner adolescent boy and he’s let that boy too far off the leash.

    My all-time favourite was The Emperor’s Soul. His Mistborn trilogy is good too, though it may be too high-tension for your taste. Try some of his novellas. Sixth of the Dusk is well done and centres on the relationship between two characters from very different backgrounds in a way I think you’d like.

  11. Rowan, checking out the first review for Sixth of Dusk made me nod and add it to my TBR pile — an easy decision because yes, this is a novella, not like the first book of a massive series.

  12. I did read this book, and I quite enjoyed it. I haven’t reread it yet (I usually don’t distinguish between a 3-4 star book, and a 4-5 star book until the reread.) I liked the narrative style. The plot has a relaxed pace, but I always found it engaging. I think the book might have been a bit weak on theme. Overall it’s something I would recommend.

    I found it quite different from other Sanderson books. I liked Mistborn, but got bogged down quickly in all the sequels. I did like Steelheart on the 1st read, but not quite as much on the reread.

  13. On a different topic, if there are any Ilona Andrews fans reading this, you may be interested in a free serial they have posted on their blog. You can see it here: https://ilona-andrews.com/category/blog/kate-daniels-world/roman-serial/

    I waited to share this with you all until it was complete, and last Friday they just published the last chapter. It doesn’t really feel complete though. They said there is going to be an extended epilogue, but they are not releasing it for free as part of the serial. So, read at your own risk…

  14. I’m a Sanderson fan, but I haven’t read Tress yet. Of his books, I think you might like The Rithmatist.

  15. I think I would quit reading in the middle of the “Men often described the girl…” paragraph. I’m not sure what exactly the author thinks he’s doing there, but it feels like a paragraph that’s more about how male authors should write about women than about anything actually in this story. I’m not opposed to a little bit of meta commentary sometimes, but maybe not before the story’s actually gotten started, and maybe on a more novel/interesting topic than “Hey, did you know many men view young women as consumable objects?” Yes, thanks, I’ve been a young woman, I’m well aware.

    I have enough friends that love Sanderson that I keep thinking I must be missing something, but his books never really hit right for me.

  16. Kim Aippersbach

    I was certainly put off by this opening—the line about collecting cups did redeem it slightly for me—and only continued reading because both my brother and my son really love Sanderson and were convinced I would too. I did finish Tress and enjoyed it: highly imaginative, and I liked the character arc. The Alcatraz book was too self-consciously funny for me; it wasn’t bad but I wasn’t invested enough to finish it. Decided to go on to The Way of Kings, which I quite enjoyed. It’s epic, not light, but I liked each POV character and I didn’t find it too dark or gritty. I haven’t continued with that series (it’s not finished yet, I don’t think) but I intend to. The books are just a little intimidating in length! I can certainly see why he’s popular—his writing isn’t gorgeous but it’s assured and it gets the job done.

    (My dad once told me he generally prefers books written by men, and I bristled a bit at that narrow-minded thinking, but I have to admit I seem to prefer books written by women! So that may be at play here, too.)

  17. Kim, I generally find that about nine out of ten authors I really love are women. After realizing that, I pretty much quit thinking there’s anything wrong with some male readers discovering they read mostly male authors. Without analyzing anything exhaustively, it seems to me that female authors include more relationship stuff even when the book is not a romance and includes no romance, and that this may be one reason for these preferences.

  18. We have that book, my husband really likes Sanderson’s books. I flipped through it and put it back down uninterested. I think I’ve read – or got to the end of – whatever his first book was titled, I think, Elantris? and the novella The Emperor’s Soul, and a YA, the Rithmatist, which looked like a series opener, but I don’t think he ever went on with it. I remember practically nothing about any of the three, and I’m pretty sure I skipped a lot through his first novel. His writing doesn’t work for me. I’ve flipped through a later doorstop, and thought the writing looked repetitious. But he’s doing something right, whatever my opinions.

    If there’s a pattern in my favoring authors I haven’t found it, other than a tiny subset of writers who are also artists. I read a lot more female writers than male, too.

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