Title:Tess of the Road
Author: Rachel Hartman
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: February 27 2018
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.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone but set in the Seraphina world
How did I get this book: Review copy
Format (e- or p-): ebook
I loved Tess of the Road with the strength of a thousand dragons.
It is not an easy read and it’s not a straightforward read but it is a very rewarding read. It’s less fantastical than I was expecting but it is still more than I was expecting in every single way.
It is an examination of rape culture as it is deconstructed inside a female character – Tess – who was born into it. Like me, like you.
Tess is all of us.
This is the conversation around Tess, about Tess, inside Tess:
Tess is a troublemaker. A bad apple. A jealous sister. Ever since she was a little kid she has shown signs of this: when she asked too many questions, when she was curious about women and babies and sex. About megafauna, dragons and science.
Her mother’s constant interventions – and beatings – were just a way of trying to make Tess good. But all the warnings and prayers and teachings were for nothing: she proved them all right when she was 14 years old and had a baby out of wedlock. All her fault.
Now, at 16, she is trying to atone by standing by her twin sister’s side and helping her arrange a marriage that will save the family. But Tess is still bad, much as she tries to be good. She has a drinking problem and an attitude problem. Because Tess? Born bad.
(Just writing these words makes me want to cry.)
But here is what happens one day: moved by grief, despair, lack of options – and slightly nudged by her half-sister Seraphina and by a pair of sturdy walking boots – Tess starts walking.
One foot in front of the other, a morning prayer that she just has to keep on living for one day at a time.
Until the very narrative around her life changes. Tess becomes Tess of the Road and the road is the whole world around her.
What comes next is a Quest and a Heroine’s Journey. Ostensibly a Fantasy novel, Tess of the Road is set in the same world as Seraphina (who happens to be Tess’ half sister). This is a world of made up religions (who are so close to real). There are dragons, quigutl (a type of sentient lizard) and mythological World Serpents. The latter is part of Tess’ journey: she is joined on the road by her childhood friend – themselves a complicated figure of motherhood/fatherhood, a mirror and companion of Tess’ own journey. Together they travel in search of a myth larger than life that could, will change everything for both of them. But the fantastical trappings truly take a back seat to everything else the novel is doing – and here is perhaps the one warning I am allowing myself to give: if a reader is coming for a Fantasy novel, there may not be the type of payoff one might expect from one. This is a quiet, introspective, character-driven Fantasy and for me, the Fantasy aspects offered a good foundation for the story being told. But hey, listen, when a character goes in search of a mythological creature of literal dreams and faces HERSELF as a consequence: what could be more typical of a Fantasy journey than this?
Originally from the kingdom of Goredd, Tess knows that there is a place for women, a place for men and those places are different and apart. Unfairly so, as it becomes clear to hear the more she thinks of it. Being alone (mostly) in the world, allows for silence and contemplation and focus on discovering her own voice.
And it’s a not an easy journey or an easy thing simply to be able to hear herself. At first Tess’ voice is the voice of the world around her. It mimics what she has been told all of her life. But hearing stories, telling stories and remembering her own stories allows for a slow progression toward change and self-realisation. The remembering bit is important too: Tess’ memories of her past, her “mistakes” and her grief are interspersed in the narrative and appear little by little – and they are hard to read. The pain is palpable. There is trauma, and abuse and rape. There is survival, tenacity, anger. There is healing and love and friendship and hope.
I know “tour-de-force” is a buzz term thrown around far too often at books. But I can’t think of a better epithet for Tess of the Road because the way Rachel Hartman builds this narrative is incredible. It’s as clever as it is beautiful.
Every man and most importantly, every woman she meets reveal a side of the world she never thought was possible. Here is an examination of patriarchy, of internalised misogyny, of religious intolerance, of a society deeply immersed in rape culture from top to bottom. And just as the story shows that everybody is part of it and therefore are worthy of compassion and understanding and even second chances, it also doesn’t excuse those who are so deeply entrenched in it that they cause real, long-lasting harm. This goes for Tess’ mother for example, the biggest voice in her life from outside and from inside Tess’ own mind (which is slowly deconstructed and let go): we know her mother has known nothing else in her own life. We also know how wrong she is, and how Tess HAS to get away from her for her own survival.
Every encounter Tess has on the road is important and this becomes clear in the end when the novel comes full circle in a surprising, heart-hearing, captivating way. It blew my mind away, what Rachel Hartman did here – bringing back a minor character who followed in Tess’ steps and saw everything she left behind, everything that we too, saw happening – and all the beautiful moments we saw in her journey, her kindness, her very change becomes something else, something grander. Inspiration. And Tess of the Road becomes her own epic myth.
Tess has one of the most stunning realisations one can have: “Maybe the world isn’t really different, but I am different, and I am in the world.”
Tess of the Road is a book with a lot of heart, with a lot of hope, with a lot of empathy and compassion. It is a very kind book.
And I am so glad this book is in the world.
Rating: 10 – Perfect and already a top 10 book of 2018