3/24/18

Tess of the Road, by Rachel Hartman

Tess of the Road, by Rachel Hartman (Random House, YA, Feb. 2018), is the third book about an almost Europe with dragons (Seraphina, 2012, and Shadow Scale, 2015 being the first two). It is my favorite of the series.

Tess has always known she was flawed and bad; her mother made sure of this.  But she didn't mean to be.  Her twin, Jeanne, is the good girl, and her older sister, Seraphina, is the one who was seemingly immune to societal pressures, who managed to escape the limitations of expectations.  Tess is bad, and almost brought scandal to the family when she got pregnant as a young teen (averted by sending her away to distant family).  When the book begins, Tessa and Jeanne, now 17, are handmaidens to a noble lady at the court (thanks to Seraphina's string pulling) and Jeanne has found the perfect rich and lordly husband.  With that out of the way, Tess begins to think of escape from a life she cannot stand, no matter how much she drinks.

And then Seraphina gives her a pair of boots, beautiful, glossy, perfect boots for the adventures little Tess had imagined as a child.  And with nothing to loose, almost despite herself Tess walks out the door.

The voices in head, both the criticisms of others, the harsh scriptures her mother hammered her with, and her own memories of guilt and grief, go with her.  But she keeps going, barely.

"Walking on now," Tess told Mama-in-her-head, kicking dirt on last night's ashes.  "I think I'll live one more day."

(aside--typing that quote I am struck by the lovely metaphor, because kicking dirt, in this case the physical work of walking, and later hard labor, on memory ashes is exactly what Tess is doing.)

Then she meets Pathka, the reptilian Quigutl whose life she saved as a child, and Pathka's quest to find a the giant serpents integral to Quigutl cosmology becomes her own, and Pathka's company and support give her further impetus to keep going, and other stories to play through her head.  (It's fun for the reader, too, to spend time with a Quigutl as a main character...they are fascinating!)

It's not a grand adventure, but the encounters along the road give Tess a chance to rethink and recast both her past decisions and the things that were no fault of her own.   It's not always easy to keep her thoughts company, but if you like being challenged to introspection about culpability, the shaming of girls, horrible parenting, and religious brainwashing (not a slamming of religion qua religion, but repressively sexist scripture is one tool Tess's mother has beaten her horribly with),  it is totally worth it, and in the end, Tess does not have to question if she will keep going.  And as Tess and Pathka get closer to the great serpent of Pathka's dreaming, the canvas expands to let the numinous in, and compassion in, and the possibility that Tess's own dreams of discovery and adventure will come true.

Tess's backstory is told in flashbacks, continuing right to the end, as she faces her worst memories.  One of those memories is rape, a part of her story she is finally able to revisit when she finds a beautifully sex-positive relationship with one of Seraphina's old friends, who does not shame her, manipulate her, or hold her back from following her own path.

If you are looking for Dragons!  Excitement! Magic!  and the stereotypical kick-ass heroine, look elsewhere.   But if you want a thought-provoking, empowering, bittersweet story that will stick with you and leave you wanting the next book very badly that's filled with enough of the strange and fantastical to add considerable wonder,  I recommend this one lots.  Also if you are a fan of Seraphina, who's not a central character but who shows up quite a bit, you'll be interested in what she looks like to her little sister

Kirkus and I are in agreement:  "Like Tess’ journey, surprising, rewarding, and enlightening, both a fantasy adventure and a meta discourse on consent, shame, and female empowerment."

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