WARNING: This review contains spoilers. If you would like to read the spoiler-free review, you can find it on my Goodreads.
Well, Tess of the Road is certainly a relief after a slew of fast-paced YA novels.
Don’t get me wrong – fast-paced YA has its merits, but after reading the breakneck Children of Blood and Bone, I felt like I needed a change of pace. And Rachel Hartman’s Tess of the Road is definitely a change of pace. It is one of the slowest fantasy novels I’ve ever read, but that by no means made it a dull read.
Tess of the Road is the story of Tess Dombegh, stepsister of Hartman’s previous heroine, Seraphina. While Seraphina is the smart sister and Tess’s twin, Jeanne, is the good sister, Tess is the troublemaker of the family. We meet Tess in the midst of helping Jeanne find a suitable husband, having ruined her own prospects. Once Jeanne is married, Tess’s family presents her with two choices: to serve as governess for Jeanne’s future children, or to join a convent. Tess runs away, disguising herself as a boy, and joins with an old quigutl friend (quigutls being subspecies of dragons).
Tess of the Road is a profound, heartfelt portrait of a young woman who has grown up hating herself, partially due to her mother’s abuse and partially due to the repressive strictures of religion. When Tess falls into a whirlwind romance with a young scholar who gets her pregnant and abandons her, her prospects are dashed and she is forced to become her sister’s drudge. Tess’s misfortunes are so numerous and her guilty conscience so weighty that she frequently questions whether she is an inherently bad person, and if she deserves to live. Her story is that of a pilgrimage – a long, slow process of self-discovery and healing, with some trappings of a fantasy.
Almost as enchanting as Tess’s journey is the world she inhabits. While Seraphina and Shadow Scale focused on the breadth of Hartman’s world, Tess of the Road narrows down to its take on gender, sexuality, and feminism. Despite Tess growing up in the confines of a strict religion, Hartman brings a very forward-thinking attitude to her world. In addition to Seraphina being in a polyamorous relationship with the Royal Cousins, Kiggs and Selda, Tess meets many Daanites (homosexuals) on the road, learns about female sexuality from a prostitute, and gets a glimpse into quigutl culture, where your sex can be changed at your leisure. Meanwhile, Tess realizes that women face a vicious double-standard regarding purity and the consequences for sullying it. These subjects, so perfectly approached in a fantasy setting, make Tess of the Road a refreshing breath of air amidst other fantasy novels.
If you like tales of empowered women, you should read this book. If you like character-driven stories, you should read this book. If you’re willing to take a long, meandering walk through a beautifully-crafted world – you should read this book.