Tess of the Roads by Rachel Hartman
Reviewed by Michael DeKoven, Port Moody Public Library
There is no shortage of stories about dragons but, despite the cover illustration of Rachel Hartman’s young adult novel Tess of the Road, this book is not really about dragons.
There are dragons in the world that Hartman has created and they are as fierce and terrifying as any, but they are also able to take human form and live among people.
The book, however, centres on Tess, a rebellious and difficult human unable to meet the expectations of how a young woman should act in her rigid, medieval society. Tess is riddled with doubt and self-loathing at her failure to be the daughter her mother requires. After she loses her virginity, has a baby out of wedlock and punches an influential relative in the nose, her family decides the only solution is to send their wayward daughter to a nunnery. Tess runs off disguised as a boy rather than join the order of St. Loola, and her flight becomes a quest of growth and self-acceptance.
Tess is not initially a sympathetic character. She drinks too much, she willfully acts against her own best interests and she deliberately pushes away those who wish to help her. In spite of being an obviously clever person, she does incredibly stupid and self-destructive things. Hartman shows great skill in revealing a backstory that makes the reader feel more empathy for the heroine, and Tess will grow on the reader as she learns from the various characters and situations she encounters on the road.
Tess of the Roads is a companion to Hartman’s previous two books featuring Tess’s half-dragon sister Seraphina but this is a character-driven exploration of a young woman’s painful lessons in overcoming the negative self-perception her misogynistic culture inflects on women who are unable to conform.
Readers of Harman’s Seraphina and Shadow Scale may be dismayed by the darker tone of this book while those looking for conventional sword and sorcery style fantasy are certain to be disappointed, but this won’t lessen the enjoyment for readers who enjoy a strong and complex protagonist.