Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman
Random House, 2018
This is not fair. Not fair at all. Tess of the Road is as close to perfect as a book can be, and yet for some reason that perfection is making it harder, not easier, to write about it. I feel the absolute greatest of responsibilities to this amazing book and it’s amazing heroine, and it’s hard not to write a thousand words of “please read it please read it please read it” instead of putting together some coherent thoughts. Nevertheless, I’m going to try.
Set in the same world as Hartman’s Seraphina and Shadow Scale, a duology about a half-dragon girl (the titular Seraphina) attempting to hide her illegal heritage and avert war while working as a court musician, Tess of the Road brings back the rich social and religious worldbuilding introduced in that series while shifting the focus to Tess Dombegh, Seraphina’s younger, human half-sister. You don’t have to have read Seraphina’s books to jump into Tess’, but this volume contains spoilers for the ending of that series, and they are also excellent and worth enjoying unspoiled if possible.
Unlike her serious, talented older sister, Tess has been brought up to believe she has no particular talents or positive traits. Chafing under an emotionally abusive mother and a distant father, and constantly compared negatively to her compliant twin Jeanne, Tess is keen for new experiences and adventures. Instead she finds herself falling in with a nasty crowd and “ruining herself” at fifteen, undergoing a series of scarring, traumatic experiences which her environment gives her no tools or support to cope with.
By seventeen, Tess has helped Jeanne secure a good marriage but has no prospect of the same: her twin wants her to come live with her and become governess to her future children, but her parents are more keen to pack her off to a convent. By now desperate to escape by any means possible, Tess is finally given an escape route by Seraphina (who has gone into seclusion after becoming pregnant under what readers of her books will know are slightly complicated personal circumstances), and sets out on the road with only one goal – surviving each day as it comes.
Tess of the Road isn’t an unnecessarily dark read, but that doesn’t mean its not difficult. Tess carries her shame and trauma around with her every moment, and while they don’t affect her irrepressible personality, the audience sees first hand how often her exploitative relationship with an older boy and subsequent pregnancy come into her thoughts, often at rather inopportune moments. Tess’ shame is very much located in her body, with her mother’s strict interpretation of Goredd’s religion instilling utterly inflexible and misogynistic expectations about her purity and worth which allow no room for redemption or moving forward. For much of the first half of the book, Tess is explicitly struggling with suicide ideation, and her inability to find anything in herself to value is hard to read at times for anyone who has been through similar experiences.
Although its always present, however, this isn’t a book about Tess’ past – it’s a book about her journey, both literal and emotional. Like all good adventures of self-discovery, Tess of the Road is packed with a rotating cast of characters who appear at different points of her journey. Tess herself spends most of her time disguised as a boy, taking on several different identities as she believes the situation requires and apparently revelling in the freedom that a male disguise brings her (although we can’t help but notice that her strongest moments tend to happen when she isn’t acting a part, or when a sympathetic character sees through it). Her most constant companion is Pathka, who is a Quigutl: a misunderstood species of four-armed human-sized lizards, related to dragons but with their own highly distinct and alien culture. Tess first met Pathka when she was a child, and can understand and speak to them even though most humans never bother to learn their native language, an early sign that she is a far more generous and capable person than she gives herself credit for. Pathka’s quest to find a mythical world-snake called Anathuthia frames much of Tess’ quest, although there are plenty of sidetracks along the way – this is a book about the journey, not the destination.
While there are a few unpleasant characters on the road, they are by far outweighed by those who wish Tess well, even if they don’t have all the answers or make the right choices themselves. Some of Tess’ most profound moments come from characters – often adult women – who she assumes are going to be hostile or unpleasant to her, but who instead prove sympathetic, insightful, and help her overcome some of the internal prejudices that prevent her from processing what has happened to her. It is through these women, each of whom has had to deal in some way with the misogyny and prejudices which shape their expectations, that Tess realises the choices before her are much greater than her narrow, abusive upbringing gave her cause to believe, and that the traumatic events of her past, while they will never go away, will also never define her. Special mention also has to be given to Tess’ third-act romantic interest Josquin, a disabled man whose sexuality and desirability is presented as a complete non-issue, and whose relationship with Tess develops alongside a very sweet two-way bond of care without ever taking over the narrative.
In the end, there’s no big emotional payoff to Tess of the Road; no clear opportunity to confront the villains of her past or radically shift her family’s thinking so they suddenly learn to value her for who she is. Instead, we follow Tess through the slow, messy, incomplete process of healing and forgiveness, as she grows past her family and finds a new sense of self-worth and belief in her own aspirations. It’s fitting that, in some ways, the plot comes full circle on Tess, giving her an option for a future that in theory she could have always taken. But, of course, it took the experience and maturity Tess earned on her adventures to see that opportunity for what it was and learn to accept it, and herself.
While I can only speak to my own reactions to what I think is quite a personal book (and I should note that my personal experiences don’t include any of the worst elements of Tess’ youth) Tess of the Road completely succeeded for me in every way I think it set out to. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Please read it.
Rating: Ten steps in sturdy new boots out of ten