Tess of the Road

by Rachel Hartman

Cover image

Series: Tess of the Road #1
Publisher: Random House
Copyright: 2018
Printing: 2022
ISBN: 1-101-93130-2
Format: Kindle
Pages: 536

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Tess of the Road is the first book of a YA fantasy duology set in the same universe as Seraphina and Shadow Scale.

It's hard to decide what to say about reading order (and I now appreciate the ambiguous answers I got). Tess of the Road is a sequel to Seraphina and Shadow Scale in the sense that there are numerous references to the previous duology, but it has a different protagonist and different concerns. You don't need to read the other duology first, but Tess of the Road will significantly spoil the resolution of the romance plot in Seraphina, and it will be obvious that you've skipped over background material. That said, Shadow Scale is not a very good book, and this is a much better book.

I guess the summary is this: if you're going to read the first duology, read it first, but don't feel obligated to do so.

Tess was always a curious, adventurous, and some would say unmanageable girl, nothing like her twin. Jeanne is modest, obedient, virtuous, and practically perfect in every way. Tess is not; after a teenage love affair resulting in an out-of-wedlock child and a boy who disappeared rather than marry her, their mother sees no alternative but to lie about which of the twins is older. If Jeanne can get a good match among the nobility, the family finances may be salvaged. Tess's only remaining use is to help her sister find a match, and then she can be shuffled off to a convent.

Tess throws herself into court politics and does exactly what she's supposed to. She engineers not only a match, but someone Jeanne sincerely likes. Tess has never lacked competence. But this changes nothing about her mother's view of her, and Tess is depressed, worn, and desperately miserable in Jeanne's moment of triumph. Jeanne wants Tess to stay and become the governess of her eventual children, retaining their twin bond of the two of them against the world. Their older sister Seraphina, more perceptively, tries to help her join an explorer's expedition. Tess, in a drunken spiral of misery, insults everyone and runs away, with only a new pair of boots and a pack of food.

This is going to be one of those reviews where the things I didn't like are exactly the things other readers liked. I see why people loved this book, and I wish I had loved it too. Instead, I liked parts of it a great deal and found other parts frustrating or a bit too off-putting. Mostly this is a preference problem rather than a book problem.

My most objective complaint is the pacing, which was also my primary complaint about Shadow Scale. It was not hard to see where Hartman was going with the story, I like that story, I was on board with going there, but getting there took for-EV-er. This is a 536 page book that I would have edited to less than 300 pages. It takes nearly a hundred pages to get Tess on the road, and while some of that setup is necessary, I did not want to wallow in Tess's misery and appalling home life for quite that long.

A closely related problem is that Hartman continues to love flashbacks. Even after Tess has made her escape, we get the entire history of her awful teenage years slowly dribbled out over most of the book. Sometimes this is revelatory; mostly it's depressing. I had guessed the outlines of what had happened early in the book (it's not hard), and that was more than enough motivation for me, but Hartman was determined to make the reader watch every crisis and awful moment in detail. This is exactly what some readers want, and sometimes it's even what I want, but not here. I found the middle of the book, where the story is mostly flashbacks and flailing, to be an emotional slog.

Part of the problem is that Tess has an abusive mother and goes through the standard abuse victim process of being sure that she's the one who's wrong and that her mother is justified in her criticism. This is certainly realistic, and it eventually lead to some satisfying catharsis as Tess lets go of her negative self-image. But Tess's mother is a narcissistic religious fanatic with a persecution complex and not a single redeeming quality whatsoever, and I loathed reading about her, let alone reading Tess tiptoeing around making excuses for her. The point of this in the story is for Tess to rebuild her self-image, and I get it, and I'm sure this will work for some readers, but I wanted Tess's mother (and the rest of her family except her sisters) to be eaten by dragons. I do not like the emotional experience of hating a character in a book this much.

Where Tess of the Road is on firmer ground is when Tess has an opportunity to show her best qualities, such as befriending a quigutl in childhood and, in the sort of impulsive decision that shows her at her best, learning their language. (For those who haven't read the previous books, quigutls are a dog-sized subspecies of dragon that everyone usually treats like intelligent animals, although they're clearly more than that.) Her childhood quigutl friend Pathka becomes her companion on the road, which both gives her wanderings some direction and adds some useful character interaction.

Pathka comes with a plot that is another one of those elements that I think will work for some readers but didn't work for me. He's in search of a Great Serpent, a part of quigutl mythology that neither humans or dragons pay attention to. That becomes the major plot of the novel apart from Tess's emotional growth. Pathka also has a fraught relationship with his own family, which I think was supposed to parallel Tess's relationships but never clicked for me. I liked Tess's side of this relationship, but Pathka is weirdly incomprehensible and apparently fickle in ways that I found unsatisfying. I think Hartman was going for an alien tone that didn't quite work for me.

This is a book that gets considerably better as it goes along, and the last third of the book was great. I didn't like being dragged through the setup, but I loved the character Tess became. Once she reaches the road crew, this was a book full of things that I love reading about. The contrast between her at the start of the book and the end is satisfying and rewarding. Tess's relationship with her twin Jeanne deserves special mention; their interaction late in the book is note-perfect and much better than I had expected.

Unfortunately, Tess of the Road doesn't have a real resolution. It's only the first half of Tess's story, which comes back to that pacing problem. Ah well.

I enjoyed this but I didn't love it. The destination was mostly worth the journey, but I thought the journey was much too long and I had to spend too much time in the company of people I hated far more intensely than was comfortable. I also thought the middle of the book sagged, a problem I have now had with two out of three of Hartman's books. But I can see why other readers with slightly different preferences loved it. I'm probably invested enough to read the sequel, although I'm a bit grumbly that the sequel is necessary.

Followed by In the Serpent's Wake.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2022-12-19

Last modified and spun 2022-12-20