Review: Tess of the Road, by Rachel Hartman

Russ Allbery eagle at
Mon Dec 19 20:22:18 PST 2022

Tess of the Road
by Rachel Hartman

Series:    Tess of the Road #1
Publisher: Random House
Copyright: 2018
Printing:  2022
ISBN:      1-101-93130-2
Format:    Kindle
Pages:     536

Tess of the Road is the first book of a YA fantasy duology set in the
same universe as Seraphina and Shadow Scale.

It's hard to decide what to say about reading order (and I now
appreciate the ambiguous answers I got). Tess of the Road is a sequel
to Seraphina and Shadow Scale in the sense that there are numerous
references to the previous duology, but it has a different protagonist
and different concerns. You don't need to read the other duology first,
but Tess of the Road will significantly spoil the resolution of the
romance plot in Seraphina, and it will be obvious that you've skipped
over background material. That said, Shadow Scale is not a very good
book, and this is a much better book.

I guess the summary is this: if you're going to read the first duology,
read it first, but don't feel obligated to do so.

Tess was always a curious, adventurous, and some would say unmanageable
girl, nothing like her twin. Jeanne is modest, obedient, virtuous, and
practically perfect in every way. Tess is not; after a teenage love
affair resulting in an out-of-wedlock child and a boy who disappeared
rather than marry her, their mother sees no alternative but to lie
about which of the twins is older. If Jeanne can get a good match among
the nobility, the family finances may be salvaged. Tess's only
remaining use is to help her sister find a match, and then she can be
shuffled off to a convent.

Tess throws herself into court politics and does exactly what she's
supposed to. She engineers not only a match, but someone Jeanne
sincerely likes. Tess has never lacked competence. But this changes
nothing about her mother's view of her, and Tess is depressed, worn,
and desperately miserable in Jeanne's moment of triumph. Jeanne wants
Tess to stay and become the governess of her eventual children,
retaining their twin bond of the two of them against the world. Their
older sister Seraphina, more perceptively, tries to help her join an
explorer's expedition. Tess, in a drunken spiral of misery, insults
everyone and runs away, with only a new pair of boots and a pack of

This is going to be one of those reviews where the things I didn't like
are exactly the things other readers liked. I see why people loved this
book, and I wish I had loved it too. Instead, I liked parts of it a
great deal and found other parts frustrating or a bit too off-putting.
Mostly this is a preference problem rather than a book problem.

My most objective complaint is the pacing, which was also my primary
complaint about Shadow Scale. It was not hard to see where Hartman was
going with the story, I like that story, I was on board with going
there, but getting there took for-EV-er. This is a 536 page book that I
would have edited to less than 300 pages. It takes nearly a hundred
pages to get Tess on the road, and while some of that setup is
necessary, I did not want to wallow in Tess's misery and appalling home
life for quite that long.

A closely related problem is that Hartman continues to love flashbacks.
Even after Tess has made her escape, we get the entire history of her
awful teenage years slowly dribbled out over most of the book.
Sometimes this is revelatory; mostly it's depressing. I had guessed the
outlines of what had happened early in the book (it's not hard), and
that was more than enough motivation for me, but Hartman was determined
to make the reader watch every crisis and awful moment in detail. This
is exactly what some readers want, and sometimes it's even what I want,
but not here. I found the middle of the book, where the story is mostly
flashbacks and flailing, to be an emotional slog.

Part of the problem is that Tess has an abusive mother and goes through
the standard abuse victim process of being sure that she's the one
who's wrong and that her mother is justified in her criticism. This is
certainly realistic, and it eventually lead to some satisfying
catharsis as Tess lets go of her negative self-image. But Tess's mother
is a narcissistic religious fanatic with a persecution complex and not
a single redeeming quality whatsoever, and I loathed reading about her,
let alone reading Tess tiptoeing around making excuses for her. The
point of this in the story is for Tess to rebuild her self-image, and I
get it, and I'm sure this will work for some readers, but I wanted
Tess's mother (and the rest of her family except her sisters) to be
eaten by dragons. I do not like the emotional experience of hating a
character in a book this much.

Where Tess of the Road is on firmer ground is when Tess has an
opportunity to show her best qualities, such as befriending a quigutl
in childhood and, in the sort of impulsive decision that shows her at
her best, learning their language. (For those who haven't read the
previous books, quigutls are a dog-sized subspecies of dragon that
everyone usually treats like intelligent animals, although they're
clearly more than that.) Her childhood quigutl friend Pathka becomes
her companion on the road, which both gives her wanderings some
direction and adds some useful character interaction.

Pathka comes with a plot that is another one of those elements that I
think will work for some readers but didn't work for me. He's in search
of a Great Serpent, a part of quigutl mythology that neither humans or
dragons pay attention to. That becomes the major plot of the novel
apart from Tess's emotional growth. Pathka also has a fraught
relationship with his own family, which I think was supposed to
parallel Tess's relationships but never clicked for me. I liked Tess's
side of this relationship, but Pathka is weirdly incomprehensible and
apparently fickle in ways that I found unsatisfying. I think Hartman
was going for an alien tone that didn't quite work for me.

This is a book that gets considerably better as it goes along, and the
last third of the book was great. I didn't like being dragged through
the setup, but I loved the character Tess became. Once she reaches the
road crew, this was a book full of things that I love reading about.
The contrast between her at the start of the book and the end is
satisfying and rewarding. Tess's relationship with her twin Jeanne
deserves special mention; their interaction late in the book is
note-perfect and much better than I had expected.

Unfortunately, Tess of the Road doesn't have a real resolution. It's
only the first half of Tess's story, which comes back to that pacing
problem. Ah well.

I enjoyed this but I didn't love it. The destination was mostly worth
the journey, but I thought the journey was much too long and I had to
spend too much time in the company of people I hated far more intensely
than was comfortable. I also thought the middle of the book sagged, a
problem I have now had with two out of three of Hartman's books. But I
can see why other readers with slightly different preferences loved it.
I'm probably invested enough to read the sequel, although I'm a bit
grumbly that the sequel is necessary.

Followed by In the Serpent's Wake.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2022-12-19


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

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