Review: Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman

Tess of the Road by Rachel HartmanTess of the Road
Rachel Hartman
Random House Books for Young Readers
Published on February 27, 2018

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads

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.

My Review
Since I enjoyed the books about Seraphina, Tess’s half-sister, I looked forward to revisiting the story world in Tess of the Road. I still enjoyed the complex and intricate setting with its cultural and spiritual elements. It took me a while to get into Tess’s character. At the beginning of the story, she’s bitter at the world and desperately trying to drown her sorrows and her self-pity in wine or spirits. At first I felt like she was self-focused and self-pitying. As the scenes revealed her backstory, I felt more sympathy for her.

Tess’s journey gave the story a bit more structure. I didn’t find her goal super compelling because it was really about helping her friend Pathka reach a goal he had set, and she still seemed to be floundering as far as her own goals and needs. The most dominant force in the story remained the politics of equality (or really, lack of it) in Tess’s world. Sometimes the narrative felt preachy and forced.

Once Tess began her interior journey of healing from past trauma, I began to like her a lot more. I liked her journey companion, Pathka, too. Overall, it might be cathartic for someone who has endured some past sexual trauma to make this journey with Tess toward healing and recovery. See below for content information, though. Tess of the Road contains some strong sexual content.

Tess of the Road on AmazonRecommended for Ages 16 up.

Cultural Elements
I don’t remember race descriptions of the characters. Tess’s cousin is gay. She meets another gay man on a job she works. She also meets a traveling prostitute who tells Tess she services both men and women.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
Mild profanity used infrequently. More often there are made up curses related to the saints in the story. My favorite is, “St. Daan in a pan!”

Romance/Sexual Content
Tess has been curious about sex from a young age. At one point she made her sister and her cousin play wedding, and tried to get them to play wedding night by sending them to bed together, but they were little kids and none of them were sure what was supposed to happen. She remains ignorant, other than teachings from St. Vitt, whom her mom believes in. The teachings place a lot of shame and blame on women for any sexual acts, even if they didn’t wish to engage in them. The culture allows men freedom to sleep with whomever they choose, but a woman who becomes pregnant or is found to have had sexual partners is treated poorly.

Tess has had a sexual experience with a young man whom she admires. For most of the story, we don’t really know what happened other than that she got pregnant and he’s gone. It was an unhealthy relationship, clearly, but not until almost the end of the book do we learn what actually happened between them. See spoiler section below for more information and trigger warning.

Disguised as a man (she believes it would be too dangerous to travel as a woman unaccompanied), Tess meets a prostitute who will service both men and women. She does not sleep with the prostitute, but marvels that this woman seems content even happy about her choice of vocation. It flies in the face of everything she was taught to believe about women like this. The woman also challenges Tess by suggesting that women can enjoy sex as well, which Tess wasn’t raised to believe. Much later, Tess masturbates (it’s implied rather than described) and marvels again at how different the experience was from her previous sexual experience.

Eventually, Tess meets a man and develops feelings for him. He teaches her about herbs which prevent a woman getting pregnant and again suggests to Tess that she should enjoy sexual acts. She eventually becomes his lover and they sleep together. It’s not graphically described, but some details are mentioned.

Several people make comments about Seraphina’s relationship with the queen and her consort, implying that she has a sexual relationship with one or both of them.

Quigutls like Tess’s companion change gender several times in their lives. When Tess knew Pathka initially, she was female. Now he is male, though another character still refers to him as mother, since Pathka did lay the egg that hatched her.

Spiritual Content
People worship various saints with various creeds on how to live life. The saints are actually people who are part dragon, like Tess’s half-sister Seraphina. When Seraphina gets pregnant without being married, Tess marvels that since her sister is a saint, no one can judge her the way they judged Tess.

Violent Content
Tess punches a seminary student in the face for insulting her. Later, she smashes the back of her head into a man’s face when she feels threatened by him. Tess’s companion, Pathka, is a quigutl, a small reptilian creature, and in Pathka’s culture, problems are resolved by the offended party biting the other party. Pathka has several bite encounters with others in the story, some causing pretty severe injury.

Early in her journey, Tess steals food and supplies. She feels guilty, but doesn’t stop for a long time.

Drug Content
At the beginning of the story, Tess has a drinking problem. She gets drunk to avoid remembering the man with whom she got pregnant and to block out her mother’s harsh words. She gets drunk and spills a secret that hurts someone she loves. She also punches someone while drunk. She eventually wrestles with the problem and tries to give up drinking and learn other coping strategies.

Tess of the Road on Goodreads

SPOILER AND TRIGGER WARNING
Late in the story, Tess reveals what happened between her and her first lover. She tries to tell it as a funny story, but the truth is that he took advantage of her and raped her. There are some graphic details. Her attitude is more reflective rather than being caught in the trauma of the event, but still might trigger readers with past experiences.

Note: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

 

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About Kasey Giard

Kasey is a mother, reader and aspiring author. When she's not reading or writing, you might find her out on the water fly fishing, pretending she can keep houseplants alive, or talking with the family rescue cat.
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