Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman
Published by Random House Books for Young Readers on February 27th 2018
Genres: Dragons, Fantasy, Young Adult
Length: 544 pages Source: NetGalley
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Meet Tess, a brave new heroine from beloved epic fantasy author Rachel Hartman.
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.
Returning to the fascinating world she created in the award-winning and New York Times bestselling Seraphina, Rachel Hartman introduces readers to a new character and a new quest, pushing the boundaries of genre once again in this wholly original fantasy.
Disclaimer: I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
This is going to be a very difficult review to write.
Tess of the Road filled a void for me that won’t (I hope) exist for most people, and because of that, Tess is my soul. I’m convinced there must be a better word in German to describe how much I love Tess Dombegh and how much I am Tess Dombegh. I can’t find it, so I will try to explain.
I have felt Tess’ pain. I have known Tess’ rejection. Although she has certainly had greater misfortune than me (and certainly greater adventure) her heart is my heart in countless ways. I have forced myself to find the strength to let the Road carry me until the Road itself became the reason. I love Tess Dombegh more than any other character I have ever met.
Because of this, my review is going to be skewed. It’s going to be praise through-and-through. I am completely unable to be objective about this book because I needed it with every fiber of my being. I have met books that I have loved, I have met books that I will forever cherish, but never before have I met a book that I felt was written for me.
1. If you are going into Tess of the Road expecting the adventure and political tensions of Seraphina, you will be hopelessly disappointed. Tess of the Road is a story about an individual, not a country. It is about healing and growth. As a reader, I love character driven books, and even if I did not relate as heavily to Tess as I do, this would not have been a problem for me.
2. I really appreciate the rawness of this story. Never once does Rachel Hartman glorify any experience Tess has been through. Never once does she force an ideal upon the reader. We follow Tess completely and watch as she untangles her own thoughts to find that medium between right and wrong. And not a single time is that ideal pushed upon the reader, because we see Tess suffer with all of them.
3. I really love the inclusion of the quigtl in this one. I found them fascinating in Seraphina and wanted to see more of them (I haven’t read Shadow Scale yet). Pathka and Kikiu are great characters in their own rights, and I love seeing Tess’s interactions with them, even when she does harm.
4. Throughout the book, I kept waiting to run into Will, and I was so pleased that it didn’t happen. This may be a little bit spoilery, but I think it was so good that Hartman kept Will in Tess’s past rather than weaving him into her present just because it would be an interesting twist.
5. The emotional transformation of Tess is so subtle, and it’s perfect. I don’t recall the moment when Tess stopped making her morning promise, only that I reached the end of the book and it occurred to me that she didn’t need them anymore. The handling of her grief is so true and real and perfect. Modern society has no time for grief (I took a month for physical and emotional recovery, and I am an exception), but most people lock it away. Tess has bottled hers for years until it shattered her. It’s almost a cautionary tale of the importance of grief and self-care.
6. Also, lets talk about Tess for a second. She’s an incredible character. Tess is strong, brave, honest when it matters, clever, and makes her own messes. I love every bit of her. She doesn’t shy away from hard work and she doesn’t leave a friend in need.
7. The word “selfish” gets thrown around a lot in this book, but I think it really comes down to not being “selfless”. This is a HUGE problem in our society where self-care can be perceived as selfishness. I loved this underlying theme because I think selfishness/taking care of ourselves is a struggle most people can relate to. When Tess makes her decision regarding Jeanne, it’s not because Tess is greedily taking all the love and attention and adventures for her own ego – it’s because she can’t bear another moment and knows she isn’t truly needed. Tess isn’t selfish and neither are most of us. I think a lot of us need to reflect on that word and realign out meanings.
8. The Road is so intriguing. How difficult it must be to leave everything behind and go only where the Road takes us? I envy Tess’ courage, and I love journey stories. If you don’t like books with a lot of traveling, Tess of the Road isn’t a good fit for you. The Road itself becomes a characters in this novel, and although there are discussions and flashbacks and side adventures to be have, this book is a journey and I delighted in every step.
9. I think that I would argue the age group of this book – while Tess of the Road definitely could be read by the YA audience, it’s subject matter seems closer to an adult book. It’s mature and serious, a far cry from the fluffy relationships we see in a lot of YA. I would trigger warn for grief, loss, elder abuse, miscarriage, still birth, and rape (though this is very subtle). Keep in mind that all these things are addressed in a very mature manner, but they are present.
10. This book made me cry every time I sat down to read it. Maybe it was just because of how much I relate to Tess, but I have never cried this much during a book. I rarely cry for books.
11. Tess and Pathka’s journey to find the World Serpents is not just a journey of healing for Tess – it becomes a philosophical and religious experience – especially for Pathka. I adore philosophical discussions in books and religion has always been a very central part of this world (Saint Seraphina…). This book is not just an adventure story – there are a lot of philosophical discussions about origin and belief and right and wrong that I thought were fabulous.
Tess of the Road is going to have a specific audience. It is brilliantly written, but I also feel that a lot of the YA community will be bored by it. And it’s a shame, because if you sit down and open your mind, it’s an amazing book. Everything in me wants to start reading it over again right this very moment. I really, truly, and genuinely loved it. This didn’t feel like a 500+ page book to me – this felt like a journey and I was bummed when it was over. I want more, I need more. And I need Tess to materialize into a real person so I can hug her and we can weep together.