Rachel Hartman’s Tess of the Road is an honest, beautiful and mature exploration of trauma and healing as the titular heroine takes to the road to find–and forgive–herself.
About ‘Tess of the Road’
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.
‘Tess of the Road’ book review
“You don’t get there,” Tess said, growing crabbier. “You’re on the Road, and the Road goes ever on and on.”
Tess of the Road is set in the same world as Hartman’s Seraphina duology of Seraphina and Shadow and Scale. I went into Tess of the Road without having read the other two books, and while I do feel having read them would have enriched my reading of Tess because there are character appearances and references to events in those books, I was not confused without having read them.
That being said, Tess of the Road is in equal parts painful and healing, innocent and mature, fantastic and grounded. For much of the book, Tess is a difficult protagonist. Hints about past trauma, as well as descriptions of an abusive childhood, are sprinkled throughout the book, and slowly Tess’s heart-wrenching backstory is revealed; Tess is haunted and in pain, and her prickly nature and self-sabotage are clearly coping mechanisms.
Tess’s character arc is easily the strongest part of the book. After she punches her future brother-in-law on twin her sister’s wedding night, Tess takes to the road rather than be shipped off to a convent. Tess, we learn, has always been curious and felt a sense of wanderlust, and thus the Road becomes a path for healing.
Taking to the road is a common fantasy trope; journeys and quests are often the backbone of fantasy fiction. But more than that, road novels tend to be male-dominated, starting with the granddaddy of the genre, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
In fact, this even plays out in Tess of the Road, as early in her travels, Tess realizes she’s not safe as a lone woman on the road. She steals male clothes and cuts her hair to pose as a boy, using various amusing aliases. Following the example of her favorite fictional swashbuckler, Tess sets out on an adventure and finds more than she could have ever hoped for.
Tess of the Road, in many ways, is a traditional road fantasy novel. It plays out in an episodic manner, featuring Tess’s numerous adventures and encounters along her travels. But rather than a quest to look for or destroy some magical McGuffin, Tess is searching for self-acceptance. The story follows the gradual cracking of the walls Tess has put up to cope. Each episode, from breaking into a hunting lodge to working on a road crew, serves as a step toward Tess’s emotional and physical development.
These events build on one another, allowing Tess to slowly reveal her history to the audience as she starts accepting what happened. The novel deals with mature themes like abuse, rape and loss as well as their painful aftermaths, but never in an insensitive manner. And watching Tess come to terms with her past, which will allow her to move forward through her own agency, is incredibly satisfying.
As with any road story, supporting characters weave in and out. The most consistent presence is Pathka, a quigutl Tess befriended as a child and encounters again in her travels. It is Pathka’s quest — practically a religious pilgrimage — to find the World Serpents, ancient and powerful beings who helped create the world according to legend that sweeps Tess along and gives her reason to wake up every morning and decide to keep walking.
Like Tess, Pathka is a flawed character whose history features one particular relationship the quigutl must work through over the course of the novel. Tess and Pathka clearly mirror one another, and their journeys to self-acceptance and self-discovery mirror one another.
There are some other delightful supporting figures like the seemingly severe Mother Superior who offers Tess excellent advice to the female road crew boss who hires Tess after seeing through her thin disguise. Some characters Tess may never meet again but will never forget while others will be part of her nomadic life for a long time to come.
While Tess of the Road is a fantasy novel, its grounded exploration of human pain and trauma and the healing that comes from travel and being present within one’s self make it relatable in ways not all fantastical works can be. Tess’s hard-earned character arc is worth sticking around for, and will make the inevitable sequel even more satisfying.