Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman

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Tess of the Road

by Rachel Hartman
February 27, 2018 · Random House Books for Young Readers
Science Fiction/Fantasy

Tess of the Road is a good book, but not the book I expected. Although there are adventures in the book, for the most part it’s a story about healing and forgiveness. Tess doesn’t even start on the road until page 88 and from then on it’s a long journey consisting of Tess considering her past and how she feels about it. There is some romance in it, but it’s not romance-centric. This book is the first in a duology, and it is a companion book to Seraphina, which I, to my shame, still haven’t read. I did not have any problems following this book.

Tess is a seventeen-year-old woman from an aristocratic but poor family in an alternate era that seems to resemble late Renaissance Europe. Her half sister, Seraphina, is half-human, half-dragon. Tess has a twin sister, Jeanne, and an abusive mother. A few years ago Tess made a mistake that her family can never forgive her for. It made her unmarriageable, so her fate is to essentially serve Jeanne and help her get a wealthy husband, after which Tess will continue to be Jeanne’s confident, maid, and nanny.

The nature of the mistake is revealed gradually throughout the book, but we know right away that it has left her bitter, sad, and sorry for herself. When the story begins, Tess is well on her way to becoming a passive-aggressive alcoholic who both loves and resents Jeanne, the “good” twin. TW! Between Tess and other characters, the book includes descriptions of the rape of a very young teen, profuse shaming of sexuality and women’s bodies, and death of a baby.

Just as Tess reaches a new low, Seraphina prods her into putting on some kick-ass boots, dressing as a boy, and running away from home. Tess has no plan and no destination in mind, but she doesn’t get caught on day one or two so she just keeps wandering around. For the first time she really faces the extent of her depression. Accompanied by her friend, a quigutl (basically a tiny dragon) named Pathka, she wakes up every day and decides to live for the duration of that day. Having made that decision for the day, she lives by the motto “walk on.”

As Tess travels, she has many conversations with people about how to deal with grief and festering anger and resentment. By the time Tess runs away from home, she’s pretty much angry with everybody. Here’s a conversation she has early in her journey:

Tess noticed for the first time that Pathka said forgive in heavily accented Goreddi, as if there was no comparable word in Quootla. “Is this not a concept among quigutl?”

“We bite each other,” said Pathka. “It amounts to the same thing. It gets the poison out of your system so that it doesn’t eat at you anymore.”

“What if you can’t bite the one who wronged you?” asked Tess, mystified. “What if…you don’t know where they are?”

“Or they’re dead, or human?” said Pathka. “Then you’re biting-utl. That can lead to death-your own, if you’re lucky, or someone else’s. If you can’t bite whom you need to bite, you end up biting whoever comes near.”

“What do you do, Pathka,” Tess half-whispered, “if the person you most desperately need to bite is yourself?”

“Then you bite yourself,” said Pathka, “With your mind.”

“Beat myself up, you mean?” said Tess bitterly. “Recite my long litany of regrets? I do that all the time.”

“No, not that,” said Pathka. His breath burned against her neck. “I mean grasp onto yourself. Clamp down with everything you’ve got.”

The fire snapped; crickets chirped.

“And then let go,” said the fierce, hot wind in her ear.

Readesr should know that this book is a feminist, sex-positive, affirming exploration of grief and the need for physical and emotional freedom. However, readers should also know that it’s 544 pages of exploration of grief and trauma. Things happen – funny things, scary things, and occasionally amazing things. However, for the most part Tess walks on and as she walks is able to release her bitterness and think about what she wants as opposed to what her family wants, and how she can forgive others and herself enough to move forward in her life.

If you look at the admittedly incredibly wonderfully stunning cover and think, “Oooh! Derring-do!” then you will be disappointed. At one point Tess joins a road crew and spends months shoveling gravel. It’s not a wild ride of unrelenting action. However, if you are patient enough to keep walking with Tess, her development into a woman who is in control of her sexuality, confident in her abilities, and empathetic towards others is thrilling. It’s the kind of book that sneaks up on you. At times I got frustrated, at times I was bored, and yet once I finished it I realized that this book would leave a permanent mark on me. I ended up feeling like the occasional feelings of frustration or boredom were important parts of the experience, which made any moment of emotional catharsis even more powerful. Tess is a memorable, well-developed character whom I will not soon forget.

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