Sometimes you glimpse at a book cover, read a description, and you think you know exactly what you’re getting. I didn’t know what I was getting with Rachel Hartman‘s Tess of the Road, but dammit if I didn’t feel it all the things while reading it. This novel has some amazing, gigantic lady-balls and I AM HERE FOR IT.
Tess of the Road is a YA spinoff from the same world as Hartman’s middle grade Seraphina novels. I haven’t read the Seraphina books, but the world was still pretty easy to understand. For anyone trying to assess the jump from Seraphina to Tess, I want to note that this book is definitely what I’ll call “upper” YA and I wouldn’t recommend it for a middle grade reader as a crossover book. Seraphina is featured minimally, and overall she’s not painted in the best light (largely because Tess harbors a lot of resentment against her.) I can’t imagine that this, along with the dark, loaded introspection throughout this book would make for a smooth reading transition for anyone who’s not already well into their teens. That said, I was fascinated by this haunting, brave page-turner.
From the description, I thought Tess Dombegh was a bit of a Dennis the Menace type, feisty and never able to be quite as perfect as her sisters. In reality, it’s much deeper than that. Tess has been broken by a painful event from her past that’s earned her ridicule and an unshakeable reputation. Rather than fight it, she’s taken to hiding in the background while securing her twin sister’s place in society and making half-baked attempts at numbing the pain. She has a family, but other than her Jeanne, they’re not a support system– quite the opposite, in fact, which only fuels her contempt. And once Jeanne is married off and Tess steps over the line again, her family is done with her, ready to send her off to a nunnery.
That’s when Tess hits the road.
Her true journey starts to form when she meets an old friend, Pathka, who is a subspecies of dragon known as quigutl. They’re more like giant lizards than actual dragons. Pathka wants nothing more than to find one of the World Serpents, a godlike creature in quigutl mythology that shapes and maintains the Earth. Thus, the two head out together, searching for a creature that very well may not exist. For Tess, any reason to strike out on her own is a good one.
As she and Pathka forge their own paths, Tess will steal, save lives, lie, discover the power of hard work, scorn others, and sacrifice herself for others, proving just how complex one “bad person” can truly be. Moving forward also forces her to confront her past in new, uncomfortable, and ultimately freeing ways. She may be looking to solve her problems but instead, she’ll learn that not all problems can be solved, they can only be moved past.
Be aware that while Tess of the Road has a fantasy setting and dragons and adventurous asides, it’s very much heartfelt tale of self-discovery that doesn’t rely on the fantasy elements. If you’re expecting the spend the whole story going “ZOMG! DRAGONS! BATTLE! ANTICS,” then you’ll likely be disappointed. It’s a searing examination of rape culture and the obscene standards placed on young women. Tess is taught that she should never to desire anyone or anything and when she falters, she’s taught that she’ll never be worthy of love or compassion again. It’s only in striking out on her own that she can learn otherwise, and that’s where the real story lies.
So no, this is not your manic “battle for the fate of the kingdom” novel (which really, we’ve seen a thousand times.) Instead, I read a story that was so deeply emotional that less than halfway through, it kept me up at night, contemplating the implications of Tess’s life and hardships.
[TRIGGER WARNING – MINOR SPOILERS IN THIS PARAGRAPH] Part of that hardship goes hand and hand with a very strict religious upbringing. Her mother is a devout follower of the strictest of saints, whose teachings are misogynistic, at best. Religious scripture is used a form of abuse in the family (though there is a counterweight to this at another point.) For some, this may be triggering, along with topics like sexual trauma, slut shaming, and child loss. These are pretty intense topics to consider and will affect you differently based on personal experience, so it’s important to know this going in.
However, there are some really cool, positive portrayals. Pathka is an intersex character, as are all quigutls. There’s positive portrayals of sex and even sex work (without getting explicit.) It’s so rare to see these factors in a novel, especially without the characters desperately trying to dissect them throughout.
Not every element of the story was perfect. I struggled with Pathka, whose behavior often seemed erratic in ways that didn’t prove a point nor move the story forward. I could see what Rachel Hartman was going for in the storyline between Pathka and his daughter, but I don’t think it ever really got there for me. Additionally, this novel is really, really not down with any sort of wish fulfillment. Tess has a couple of abusers who I’d desperately hoped she’d be able to confront. It doesn’t happen. There are other characters still that I’d hoped she’d come to terms with as her new life began. She doesn’t. This story goes for stark realism, in that sense. Tess has to do what’s right for her, damn what others want for her, and things won’t wrap up neatly in the process.
Tess of the Road is a surprise, but if you want a story with an unshakeable heart, feminist roots, and the realest lead ever, look no further.
RATING: 5 OUT OF 5 STARS
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. You can’t make a scene at your sister’s wedding and break a relative’s nose with one punch (no matter how pompous he is) and not suffer the consequences. As her family plans to send her to a nunnery, Tess yanks on her boots and sets out on a journey across the Southlands, alone and pretending to be a boy.
Where Tess is headed is a mystery, even to her. So when she runs into an old friend, it’s a stroke of luck. This friend is a quigutl–a subspecies of dragon–who gives her both a purpose and protection on the road. But Tess is guarding a troubling secret. Her tumultuous past is a heavy burden to carry, and the memories she’s tried to forget threaten to expose her to the world in more ways than one.