Mama had the moral answers. And Tess was always wrong.
The farther she walked, the more irrelevant that seemed.
Walking was a good in itself, right and just and necessary. The road gave her no small measure of joy. Every day brought new vistas – the white conical roofs of oast-houses, a fox with her kits, an undiscovered color in the evening sky. Anything might be around the next bend; she could walk forever and never reach the end.
The road was possibility, the kind she’d thought her life would never hold again, and Tess herself was motion. Motion had no past, only future. Any direction you walked was forward, and that was as must be.
Walk on became her credo; she repeated it to herself every morning upon deciding to get up and exist for one more day.
–Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman
Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman
Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book from the editor through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. In no way did this affect my review or my rating of the novel.
Tess of the Road is a young adult fantasy novel about a young woman who finds herself rejected by her family, destined for a nunnery, but runs away to complete a quest with her childhood friend Pathka. Tess disgraced herself in the eyes of society, and her fate has been decided: she must help her younger sister find a husband, then accept a retreat from society. Ever since this fate was determined, Tess has been taming her rebellious streak with alcohol, but just when she has almost accomplished the task given to her, she finds herself to blame for the destruction at her sister’s wedding. At the last minute, she determines that she cannot spend the rest of her life behind walls – and sneaks out of the house, meeting up with her childhood friend Pathka, who agrees to travel with Tess to complete the quest they dreamed about as children: finding the World Serpents.
I had never read Rachel Hartman’s earlier book Seraphina (which is set in the same world), so I was not quite certain what to expect out of this one. I had imagined either a high fantasy or, after starting it, perhaps a light-hearted comedy. Tess of the Road, however, manages both. Tess’s world is a medieval setting with highly technical magic, and dragons that can shape-shift into humans. Tess’s older half sister Seraphina is half dragon herself. The religion in this book was fascinating to me – it managed to be precisely nonsensical enough to imitate our own world’s religions. Dragons are of course dangerous but still usually educated and wise. Humans are still somehow the superior race, despite evidence to the contrary. Human-dragon pairings are highly controversial, but the children of those couples are “saints” – revered by the world around them, and their thoughts are recorded and often quoted. Most fascinating are the quigutl – lizard-like cousins to the dragons who are clearly as rational as humans and dragons, but they are generally considered animals rather than people, and few bother to learn their language. This is the complex world through which Tess travels, hoping to find the World Serpents spoken of in quigutl legends. It sounds as strange as any other fantasy world, but all of the conflicts of that world are familiar. Women are expected to be servants to the men of their family and religious teachings are expected to be followed despite their frequent contradictions. The characters of Tess of the Road still struggle with greed and lust and trauma, people of all races still betray their friends and family, and forgiveness is still the most powerful tool available.
If the world of Tess of the Road is detailed and complex, so are the characters themselves. Tess is a perfect anti-hero; she often makes terrible choices, but her choices are understandable, and while I was not always rooting for her to win, I was always rooting for her to figure things out. She is stubborn and selfish and often acts out from the trauma hiding in her past, but when given the chance to help others, she does time after time, making her ultimately redeemable. Unlike many novels featuring an anti-hero, Tess’s friend Pathka is equally complicated. Pathka too has experienced abuse, nearly losing her life at a young age from a difficult birth after a rape. Pathka is a quigutl – they physically change from male to female many times throughout their lives, so while the Pathka of Tess’s childhood was a female, the Pathka that journeys with Tess is male. Pathka has experienced all the prejudices expected with his race, but still manages to be free of that bitterness. Instead, Pathka seems optimistic to a fault. Because of his own difficult experiences, he acts oblivious to the harm that he is capable of causing. He is swift to judgement and often is unflinchingly harsh with Tess and with others, but Pathka is still deeply capable of love and support, and his utter faith in the existence of the World Serpents is inspiring.
This book does deserve a bit of a content warning – it looks unflinchingly at difficult issues like birth trauma, rape, abuse, and abandonment. Those that are particularly sensitive to those topics might struggle with some scenes of Tess of the Road. However, those topics are handled incredibly well, especially given the target audience. Tess’s world is shown to be controlling of and hateful to women, but even given that setting, there are still many characters who are shown to be respectful and supportive of women, helping Tess continue her journey and address the trauma of her past. Many women are shown to be in positions of power, despite the obstacles presented by the world around them, and Tess is not just aided, but also inspired, and is given the space to heal from her past.
In all, Tess of the Road is absolutely a 10 out of 10. Every aspect of this book is stellar, from the rich characters to the fascinating world to the light-hearted yet still deeply meaningful text. Even non-fantasy fans will find themselves rooting for Tess as she finds her place in the world.