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Book Review: Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman

I have wanted to read a book by Rachel Hartman since I read about her young adult novel Seraphina, but somehow it just never made it to the top of my list. So when one of my library coworkers asked me to read her novel Tess of the Road for possible inclusion in a book-award list, I said "absolutely yes." Not only because I wanted to read one of Hartman's books, but also because I love stories that are about traveling, especially by foot.

Tess of the road coverThis novel is set in an alternative version of late medieval Europe: those same strict rules for what women can and can't do, and pious religious mothers protecting their daughters' virtue, and girls going to court to secure a wealthy marriage. The same setting as Seraphina, in fact, and if you liked that book you'll be happy to know she makes an appearance in this one, too. But if you haven't read Seraphina (like me) you'll be just fine without knowing her story. A setting familiar to many fantasy and historical novel readers...except there are dragons.

Dragons and something called quigutl, which I couldn't quite picture (maybe if you have read Seraphina you can picture them); in my head, they are the size of toddlers and a combination of human and lizard. The quitgul are able to make things with metals and so give the novel a sort of steam-punk feel (even if the time period is a bit earlier than the usual steam punk setting).

The main character is Tess, Seraphina's half sister and twin sister to Jeanne. Tess, it seems, has done something awful, something that has ruined her chances at landing a suitable (wealthy) husband. So she has become Jeanne's support staff, scouting out prospects, setting up afternoon encounters and invitations to parties in a quest to get her sister married. After, Tess is to be sent to a convent?but this doesn't sit well with Tess, who is fiery and independent and curious, and besides, Seraphina has given her a pair of beautiful and sturdy boots.

So, rather than being sent to the convent, Tess runs away. She soon meets up with an old friend, Pathka the quigutl. And her adventures commence, the details of which I'll let you discover when you read the book.

I enjoyed many things about this book. Tess comes to some realizations about gender and how society affects women, but the knowledge comes slowly and through her experiences. (In other words, the book avoids the offensive and annoying use of an anachronistic feminism.) Her travels change her, but they don't make her invincible or all-wise or perfect; more intelligent and understanding of the world and herself, but still prone to make mistakes. And I loved the mix of fantasy and almost-history, as if this world is a different version of our own. So while there is a journey, and even the briefest mention of the road going ever onward, and even dragons, it doesn't feel very derivative of Tolkien.

Tess of the Road does, in fact, avoid almost all of the things I tend to dislike in fantasy. Except one: the use of modern slang and speech patterns. This is something I can't abide. For example, Tess tells her father he has to "suck it up," which is a term that originated in World War II, as far as I can tell. When she is on the road, she kicks an old man, who she refers to as a "geezer." But "geezer" didn't mean "old guy" until the 1920s or so. And she refers to something as "vomit-making." This use of slang in a fantasy world is untenable to me; it feels lazy and sloppy, and it almost made me stop reading. But, as the book progressed, this offensive writing vanished.

In the end, I am glad I stuck with Tess and finished out her adventures. I'm not certain I will finish them completely—the book doesn't leave you with a cliff hanger, but it clearly was written with a sequel in mind—but I am glad I told my friend yes and read this.


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