I was excited for this one. I’m a fan of Hartman’s Seraphina duology, which is a YA fantasy duology about a girl trying to accept who she is. That duology is set in a world where dragons can adopt human form, but in some countries in the world, relation between humans and dragons is quite tense.
I enjoyed those books for their detailed writing and for introducing me to such an interesting world, which we get to explore more in the duology’s second book, Shadow Scale, which explores more of the world as well as the region where the dragons live.
I was sad when the duology ended, but was excited and hopeful when I heard of Tess of the Road, a new book set in the same world. I once again looked forward to Hartman’s detailed writing and to explore more of the world. But sadly, I didn’t enjoy Tess’s book as much as Seraphina’s.
In the medieval kingdom of Goredd, women are expected to be ladies, men are their protectors, and dragons get to be whomever they want. Tess, stubbornly, is a troublemaker. You can’t make a scene at your sister’s wedding and break a relative’s nose with one punch (no matter how pompous he is) and not suffer the consequences. As her family plans to send her to a nunnery, Tess yanks on her boots and sets out on a journey across the Southlands, alone and pretending to be a boy.
Where Tess is headed is a mystery, even to her. So when she runs into an old friend, it’s a stroke of luck. This friend is a quigutl — a subspecies of dragon — who gives her both a purpose and protection on the road. But Tess is guarding a troubling secret. Her tumultuous past is a heavy burden to carry, and the memories she’s tried to forget threaten to expose her to the world in more ways than one. (Goodreads)
That’s a pretty decent overview of the book. I’d only add that Tess is driven to travel because she’s tortured by her past and the guilt and shame roiling within her because of how she’s treated by her family. She turns to the road to escape her burdens at home, but finds solace during her journey and starts to heal.
Tess had an emotionally difficult path to traverse since a kid. Her mother dislikes her and piled a heap of admonishments, self-hatred, and guilt on Tess through their religion, supposedly to ensure Tess is the epitome of a lady: obedient and pliant. It seems that no one in Tess’s family sought to help or understand her, no one understands her inquisitive, impulsive nature and instead made her feel ashamed of it. No one except her quigutl friend, Pathka, whom Tess often had small adventures with as a kid and who later accompanies her on the road. (Quigutls are fantastical creatures in this world. They are minorities and are often mistreated by both humans and dragons.)
I sympathized with Tess and could relate to her in some ways. Though she is a bitter and angry character when we first meet her, I quickly took a liking to her. I could see parts of myself in that bitter Tess who regrets her plight in life and often abusively berates herself for her failures. If I’d known her in real life, I’d try to help (though she’d probably refuse it) and give her a copy of Pema Chodron’s Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better. Failure is a part of life. Instead of berating oneself for failing, it’s best to accept it as a lesson, learn from it, and try again. Tess slowly grows to realize this as she travels along on the road.
For the most part, I liked the story; but that’s because I didn’t mind the protagonist and liked the world it is set in. If such wasn’t the case, I probably would have given up on the book. I gave it all 2.5 stars because as the story progressed, I started to lose interest. There’s something about the story that didn’t work for me and I can’t quite identify exactly what it is. But here is a bullet list of things I disliked about the book because they are many:
- Tess’s frequent negative thoughts about herself and failures:
- I understand that she feels bad about all she has done and her frequent reflections on her failures shows how guilt-ridden she is (I could totally relate to that), but after a while (about 50% into the book), it started to wear on this reader. I wanted to shake Tess and tell her to get over it, which is very insensitive of me and wouldn’t have helped if I could have done it, but it became tiresome to read Tess’s negative thoughts, so I was grateful when that lightened. I just think it took a very long time to get to the lighter parts.
- The story is too long
- I go back and forth on this. I think part of the reason why this is a complaint is because of the point I mentioned above. Reading so much of Tess’s negative thoughts made reading the story tiresome, a burden, thus probably making it seem that the story is longer than it actually is. Also, some parts seemed a little pointless to me, like when Tess meets Blodwen and Gwenda and made up a story to entertain them. It didn’t add anything to the plot. I just thought it was pointless. I also thought the story would end when Tess helps Pathka to accomplish her quest to find one of the fabled World Serpents that’s like a god to the quigutl because I thought that was partly the point of Tess traveling on the road; but I was wrong there. The story continues for quite some time afterward. Speaking of which…
- It’s hard to tell what the point of the story is
- That’s harsh, but after I passed the World Serpent part and Pathka seemed to have exited the story, I became confused about the story’s intention. What is Tess trying to accomplish? I thought it was for Tess to heal and Pathka to maybe find a World Serpent, which both happened about 70% or so into the story, so what else could there be, I wondered.
- To me, the story went downhill after that 70%, basically when Tess gets to Segosh.
- (Some spoilers.) Her claim to have been the one to find the fabled World Serpent that no one believed to exist doesn’t sit well with me because it’s not Tess who found the serpent, it was her friend, Pathka, a quigutl and an outcast of the society. One could call the quigutl a minority race and since the fabled World Serpent is like a god to them, one could then say that Tess not only betrayed her friend’s trust by claiming the discovery as her own and publicizing its location, but appropriated her friend’s culture for her own means. This part made me so angry because the World Serpent is not of Tess’s culture, therefore Tess has no right to claim success from “discovering” it (especially since she didn’t do so). Tess here exploits her friend’s culture for her own needs which causes the destruction of her friend’s god. I don’t think a quigutl bite is enough to forgive Tess of this sin. (End of spoilers.)
- I think this part needed more fleshing out and should have been a separate book, but in no way is what Tess did right and compared to the many unnecessary parts that preceded it, this incident was basically glossed over. It wasn’t explored in any way and that made me angry with the novel as a whole.
- Further, the story takes an odd turn toward the end in its portrayal of quigutls. From the moment Pathka enters the story (or quigutls in general), we readers are basically told to respect them as we would humans in the text because Tess respects them. But, at the very end when Tess again meets the Countess Margarethe, they are rendered silly creatures. In that meeting, Tess further exploits Pathka’s discovery and spiritual quest by claiming it as her own and the narrative in turn belittles quigutls by making them seem comical to ensure that Tess has to speak for and champion their cause. In this way, Tess is their savior. This didn’t sit well with me and confused me about how I should regard the quigutls. (I guess it’s kind of silly for me to go on so much about made up creatures or to identify with them so much, but I can’t help it.)
- This part spoiled the whole damn book for me and sort of made me regret reading it. By the story’s end, Tess has overcome some of her shame and guilt about the past, but have also taken a negative turn by stealing her friend’s accomplishment to suit her own needs. I was also stunned that she doesn’t notice or acknowledge the extent to which she has mistreated her twin sister, Jeanne, over the years. Because the story is told from Tess’s perspective, it’s easy to assume that the entire world was against her for most of the story and that no one in her family cared much for her. We are basically told to pity Tess. But Tess assumes a lot about her family members and often takes advantage of her quiet, obedient twin sister without considering how Jeanne thinks and feels. By the end, the narrative seems to tell us that Tess is the better one of the two, but to me Tess is still as selfish as she was at the beginning. She’s just not bitter anymore.
I didn’t want to dislike this book, but those last couple chapters took a turn for the worst and I didn’t even mention the romance, which I both liked and disliked (liked-utl, 😀 ). The story is interesting, I liked that we get a different view of some of the countries in this world, which I appreciate after reading Shadow Scale, and the protagonist isn’t too bad in some spots; but I don’t like that some problematic sections are undeveloped, that the protagonist is supposed to be seen as a sort of savior for exploiting others (probably not the author’s intention, but that’s how those parts seemed to me), and that she doesn’t realize how selfish and unfair she is to those she says she cares most about.
Despite all that, I do appreciate the strong feminist tone of this story. It’s a tone that is evident in the Seraphina books as well. In both Seraphina and Tess, readers see that women can effect great change and that they can have adventures and be the heroes in stories. They can save themselves and forgive themselves and follow their own path.
Overall: ★★☆☆☆ 1/2
It was interesting at first, but disappointing by the end.
I hope that what I mentioned above will be resolved in another book because this seems like it will be a series or something. Hopefully it’s all set-up for further character exploration and growth in another book.
Buy | Borrow | Bypass
I liked the story up until a certain point after which I really didn’t like it, so it’s hard for me to recommend this one, which is why I haven’t made a selection for this section.
However, I don’t think readers should totally Bypass the story either because Tess’s struggle to accept who she is and to forgive herself of the guilt heaped on her by her mother (realizing she doesn’t have to carry that guilt/stress/burden) is important, I just don’t recommend the last couple chapters.
However, I urge you to read the Seraphina books. They’re great!
Chances are if there’s a sequel, I’ll read it because I really like Hartman’s writing and the world she has created here.