Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman. ★★★★
TW: sexual assault (not shown), infant death, suicidal thoughts, slut shaming
While Tess of the Road is set in the same world as Seraphina, it is an independent story that stands by itself. Actually, you might enjoy it more if you don’t go in expecting it to be like Seraphina; for Tess of the Road is a different, darker and more personal, story.
The story focuses on Tess, a young woman in a patriarchal fantasy kingdom who’s “ruined herself” and is held in low regard by her family. At her sisters’ wedding, Tess tries to drown out her demons with alcohol but ends up causing a scene and punching a priest (who’s also her brother-in-law) in the face. It’s the last straw for her family, who decide to send her to a nunnery to be rid of her. Tess, full of hurt and resentment, decides to run away. She’s lucky enough to encounter an old friend who’s a quigutl (sub-species of dragon) who gives her a semblance of purpose and destination. As she journeys along the road, Tess has to come to terms with herself, her past, and the pain and grief she’s holding inside her.
Tess of the Road is the story of one traumatized teen girl’s path to recovery. While it’s set in a fantasy world, Tess of the Road bears some resemblance to contemporary young adult novels dealing with issues such as sexual assault and teen pregnancy. Perhaps this is why reviews are falling into either “love it” or “hate it” camps. If you were wanting a fun, fantasy quest story, that’s not really Tess of the Road.
Tess of the Road intermingles two timelines, the present and flashbacks telling what led Tess to this point. At the start, you don’t know what exactly Tess went through. From the insults of her family members, it’s clear that Tess became pregnant when she was thirteen or fourteen, but details are vague. While the flashbacks fill in the gaps, the focus is thankfully on Tess’s recovery and her starting to un-internalize all the toxic messages she’s learned about women, sexuality, and her own self worth.
Tess of the Road is very much a feminist novel. The world Tess grew up in is deeply patriarchal, and she’s been continually slut shamed and derided by her family members to the point that she’s come to believe that she’s worthless and that her body is a source of evil. While the modern day culture I live in might not be so extreme, the similarities are there. Still, I’d rather read Tess of the Road than a contemporary story dealing with the same issues. Dragons make everything better.
I read Tess of the Road in the span of a single day, and I had a hard time putting it down. I’m always looking for books that remind me why I read young adult literature, and Tess of the Road is definitely one that does. However, I should not that it’s at the older end of young adult — perhaps the last two years of high school.
Tess of the Road is not an easy story, and if you come in expecting a fantasy story like Seraphina, focusing on political intrigue and adventure, you will likely be disappointed. But if you can accept Tess of the Road for what it is, a deeply personal story of healing, then you’ll likely appreciate this gem of a book.
I received an ARC in exchange for a free and honest review.