Tess of the Road
Tess of the Road is an astounding book that presents a heartbreaking portrait of a young woman finally breaking the shackles of a restrictive upbringing in a fantasy world. Aided by a serpent-like quigutl, a species cousin to dragons, Tess overcomes her outcast status to find and value what she wants to be.
After Tess’s early disgrace, the end result of a religiously-focused mother trying to break the spirit of a creative, outgoing young girl without giving her the tools she needed to channel her intelligence and curiosity, the family is dependent on Tess’s twin Jeanne to marry well and ensure their financial survival. Tess struggles through this process, with the aid of a good amount of wine, until she finally has to run away instead of being put in an nunnery. She’s aided, although she doesn’t want to be, by her half-sister, the half-dragon Seraphina.
I’ve known Rachel Hartman was exceptionally skilled at fantasy world-building since her minicomic days, but this is a pinnacle of success. This book is filled with different terms and cultures and habits and religions, which normally frightens me away from most fantasy novels, but Hartman introduces them all so well and naturally that I was eager to learn more. I didn’t have to stop and puzzle over things; instead, I could sympathize with how many cultures are afraid of women’s abilities, creating prohibitions on their activities, regardless of the words used or saints invoked. There’s plenty of adventure and humor, as well, creating a page-turner that kept me up late just to hope for Tess to win out.
Hartman’s character portraits are beautifully detailed, establishing people you can see for yourself, and her invention of an entire other species, the unique quigutl, is amazing. Her previous two books, Seraphina and Shadow Scale, set up the world and its cultures, but they were focused on the scholarly dragons and Seraphina’s life at court. This book, a worthy companion, is more down-to-earth, both with the overlooked quigutl and Tess’s hardscrabble journey through the lives of workers and priests and criminals. This is about finding yourself among the marginalized and having the courage to be true to yourself and your loved ones, which just might change the world. Tess is forced into all this, with her choices pretty much being whatever she has left when forced to the breaking point. Her quest, although she doesn’t know it, is for healing, for acceptance of terrible memories and a life of emotional neglect.
Tess’s struggles are immensely sympathetic. She wasn’t the smart one or the pretty one, so she was ignored in favor of her younger brothers. Her skill in learning the quigutl language, something no one else bothered with, eventually leads her to a faithful partner and an amazing spiritual discovery. She’s inspired by the wrong kind of boys’ fantasy stories, finally realizing that there are more roles possible than left-behind love object or whore or nun (and that there’s nothing wrong with those, either). The author has expressed her goal to create “a road map back from trauma and grief”, and she succeeds. It’s an excessive claim, but I believe that readers of Tess of the Road will come out of it changed for the better, more thoughtful and sympathetic. (The publisher provided a digital review copy.)