Tess of the Road
Author: Rachel Hartman
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Publisher: Random House
A Review by CL Vitek
“In the medieval kingdom of Goredd, women are expected to be ladies, men are their protectors, and dragons get to be whomever they want. Tess, stubbornly, is a troublemaker.”
And where does being a troublemaker leave Tess Dombergh? Her half-sister is both dragon and saint, above reproach and the savior of their realm. Her twin is perfect and good, never straying from the path set for her. Tess, on the other hand, is trouble. Moreover, she’s been running headlong into that trouble her entire life, even when she’s trying to be the person she’s been told she should be.
She is the sort of heroine who is difficult to like for all the right reasons. She’s so incredibly flawed: impulsive, stubborn, and desperate for approval even while denying anyone else the satisfaction of being correct. It’s not until we discover where her journey started that we can see how she came to be who she is when we meet her. Hartman does an amazing job letting Tess tell her story on her own terms, letting us see her world as she does and then as it expands, so too does her understanding of her past and experiences.
I will admit that the gorgeous cover first drew me to Tess of the Road, even though I’d never read Seraphina and knew little about the world. Maybe reading the book without the context of the previously published duology didn’t help with the full history of the many characters in Tess’s journey within but I didn’t have any difficulty grasping the world Hartman builds for our heroine. It’s medieval in almost every sense of the word and a hard place for a girl unable to conform to the rigid standards laid out for her.
When I picked up this book, I expected a fantasy novel with a heroine running away from her past. I was looking for a story about magic and adventure with dragons and a main character pretending to be a boy. Those things were there but not in any way I expected.
This isn’t the story I was looking for; I am not upset about that.
Tess of the Road is a book about a girl who makes a choice to run towards something and not from it. This is a world where dragons are real and not without their own prejudice, much like their human counterparts. It’s one that doesn’t flinch from prejudice or the unfairness of expectations. When Tess meets up with an old friend, a species of dragon called a quigutl, she’s no longer alone in her feelings of disconnection to her family and her society. Their mission on this journey is an important part of the story but it isn’t the core of it.
This is a book about journey: the kind of journey taken across great distances both in the physical world and within. This is a book about mothers and daughters. It’s a book about grief and its pervasiveness. It’s about depression and the depths that it can bring anyone to without that person realizing it themselves. More than that, it is a book about forgiving yourself.
It’s a messy book in the way that life is messy.
Tess is a difficult character. She struggles with herself and her choices. As a reader, I did too. It’s hard to read her voice and know that she’s making decisions that are going to end badly for her. It’s infuriating sometimes but I don’t mind that in a character when it’s done well. The rest of the cast is also well developed. Their stories develop through Tess’s point of view and it offered just enough nuance for the reader to pick up what wasn’t being said between the lines. Tess’s dragon companion, Pathka, is just nonhuman enough to highlight the differences in their thought processes from other species and to differentiate the character from the rest of their kind.
Hartman does something in Tess of the Road that I’ve rarely seen done in YA fantasy and she does it in an incredibly thoughtful fashion. She tackles so many hard topics that are relevant not only in the typical fantasy narrative but also echo through issues many young women struggle with today. Gender identity. Religion. Sexual purity. Rape culture. Cultural clashes. It’s all in this book and handled deftly without being too heavy handed in any direction. It doesn’t feel like it’s preaching about these things; they just exist in the book’s world. The journey allows the reader, much like Tess herself, to find their own way to the end.
“You can’t walk away without also walking toward.”
My feelings for Tess of the Road are complicated, much like the book itself. Tess is every girl who has ever been too much and too precocious for the world around her. She’s delightful and exasperating in turns, though that could be said about most of us when we’re teenagers. This isn’t your typical YA book. It isn’t about adventure or magic in the way so many other books of the genre are, though those things are all here. It’s a quieter journey that involves more introspection than swordplay.
The book worked for me. The relationships are complex and the characters aren’t easy to categorize without a lot of thought. This isn’t going to appeal to all readers for that reason. It’s more character driven and some might find that boring. It also doesn’t shy away from dark stories. Sexual assault, abuse, and similar themes are present in the book without downplaying their significance or impact on characters. It also doesn’t allow those things to shape the narrative or portray them in a titillating or melodramatic manner.
The subject matter is heavy and the implications of those issues aren’t brushed aside in favor of an easy ending. I was genuinely disappointed to reach the end of the book and realize that was over. I wanted more of Tess, her friends, and her world. Given that Tess is slated to have a sequel, I think it’s safe to say that we’ll be seeing more of her world and the road she’s choosing to travel.
If you’re looking for a fantasy read that stays with you after the final page, I would highly recommend giving Tess of the Road your time.
Tess of the Road is available in bookstores on February 27, 2018.