What a Lot of Modern Fantasy Could Learn From Tess of the Road

Posted August 2, 2021 by Amber in Bookish Things / 0 Comments


In the last couple of decades, fantasy books have evolved.  A genre that used to focus heavily on adventure, good vs. evil, and romance is now more nuanced.  I love it so much when authors write fantasy stories filled with myth and magic but still take time to address real, relevant concerns and experiences.  Not just flash and action – real human stories.

More fantasy novels do that lately, with particular emphasis on sexism and racism.  I think both of those are fantastic, I really do.  But I also love the more granular approaches to some of the quieter concerns of the world.  And when all of it is woven together – social issues, human issues, magic, mayhem, a great world and characters – then we have something truly remarkable.

It’s been a long while since I’ve spoken about Tess of the Road on this blog, my friends.

Tess of the Road is my favorite book.  It’s an unlikely choice for many, but Tess speaks to my heart and feels very personal for me.  There are many things I love about this book: the effortless way Rachel Hartman weaves together so many human flaws and behaviors into a greater pictures that make you angry and break your heart while it still feels quiet and personal… it’s amazing, honestly.

Tess has conversations about racism (the quigtl).  It discusses sexism (Tess’s mother’s expectations).  These are both important, central themes, but Hartman handles them with care and doesn’t let them stomp all over the plot.  Tess isn’t a book about these things… it’s a book about Tess Dombegh.

Beyond those common threads, Tess of the Road addresses pregnancy and miscarriage, parental support and shame, mixed families, morality on a few different levels, shades of spirituality, depression, suicidal ideation, and toxic relationships.  It respectfully discusses sex work and LGBTQIAP+ perceptions. There’s a trans character as well, gender neutral pronouns (ko), emotional abuse, rape, victim blaming, disability, and gaslighting.  Even with all that, I am sure I’m missing something.  Tess of the Road packs so many things in a single book that are more than just a plot, just a character, just a romance or a journey.

While still being subtle, Tess of the Road lays out so many important social topics and personal identities that it’s like the entire book is trying to say, “I see you.”.  That’s its magic.  And it’s a magic I’d like to see in more books, particularly fantasy.  Throughout the book we remain with Tess, but these contemplations, representations, and learnings are all a part of her world, her surroundings, and her.

I’d like fantasy to take the opportunity to embrace the bigger picture like Tess of the Road does so well.  Not just monsters and magic and mythical beasts and high action, but also humanity.  There are so many people and so many experiences that rarely make their way into books and even less frequently into fantasy.  I want more.  I expect more.

I have hope for the future of the genre and I am so excited to see its transformation.


Do you have fantasy recommendations with relatable themes beyond romance and badassery?  I am always looking for more epic books to add to my list – share your treasures inthe comments!

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