In my quest to read as many Hugo (or in this case, Lodestar) nominated books as I possibly can, I jumped head first into the new-ish YA category with the book I had heard the most about. Opinions seem to go in opposite directions. Either people loved the book or they hated it so much they didn’t even finish. As I happen to like quieter, character-focused books, I was intrigued and quite sure this would be my cup of tea.
TESS OF THE ROAD
by Rachel Hartman
Published by: Random House, 2018
Ebook: 544 pages
My rating: 8,5/10
First sentence: When Tessie Dombegh was six and still irrepressible, she married her twin sister, Jeanne, in the courtyard of their childhood home.
In the medieval kingdom of Goredd, women are expected to be ladies, men are their protectors, and dragons can be whomever they choose. Tess is none of these things. Tess is. . . different. She speaks out of turn, has wild ideas, and can’t seem to keep out of trouble. Then Tess goes too far. What she’s done is so disgraceful, she can’t even allow herself to think of it. Unfortunately, the past cannot be ignored. So Tess’s family decide the only path for her is a nunnery.
But on the day she is to join the nuns, Tess chooses a different path for herself. She cuts her hair, pulls on her boots, and sets out on a journey. She’s not running away, she’s running towards something. What that something is, she doesn’t know. Tess just knows that the open road is a map to somewhere else–a life where she might belong.
Returning to the spellbinding world of the Southlands she created in the award-winning, New York Times bestselling novel Seraphina, Rachel Hartman explores self-reliance and redemption in this wholly original fantasy.
Tess Dombegh is lady-in-waiting to her twin sister, so the latter can find a suitable husband at court, even though Tess is the older twin. The Dombegh family keeps that fact a secret, however, because, there is something in Tess’ past that would disgrace them all. Once Jeanne, the younger twin, is married, there are few options for Tess and neither of them appeals much to her. So she does what any spirited young woman in her place would do – she runs away from home on a quest to… nothing in particular, but really everything, as it turns out.
It is so easy to fall into this book, to get sucked into life at court, the dynamic between Tess and the rest of her family, but the first few chapters are a little deceptive. They are fast-moving, include lots of dialogue, and introduce Tess to the readers. So far, so good. Except the rest of the book continues in a very different tone. I personally loved it but I can see how other readers may feel cheated out of the quippy relationship drama they may have come to expect from the beginning. But the bulk of the novel is really what it says on the tin. It’s Tess. On the Road. She and her childhood best friend – a quigutl (lizard-like people) named Pathka – walk along together, finding ways to feed themselves (stealing, doing chores for dinner, even proper jobs), and they meet new people.
There are so many layers to this book and so much to love about it, I hardly know where to start. As she’s the heart of the tale and also in the title, I’ll go with Tess herself. It is very clear that something inside Tess is broken. She is bitter, she constantly hears her mother’s reprimanding voice in her head, she feels like a failure and a bad person, like she is unworthy of love. I don’t want to spoil what her big secret is, even though most of it comes out pretty soon in the book. Tess learning to live with her past and making the best of who she has become is really what this is all about.
Pathka, her best friend, has his own quest to follow and while it starts as a red herring, it also becomes much more important than expected. Pathka wants to find the mythical World Serpents, giant creatures said to roam underground caverns. But as they are only legends, Tess assumes, Pathka is on an equally spiritual journey as herself.
Like any good road trip story, there is a variety of people to be met, helped, escape from, and befriend. Rachel Hartman really showed her skill here, because this could have felt episodic quickly. Tess walks, gets to a town/farmhouse/quarry/whatever, meets some people and interacts with them, then walks on. But it never did feel episodic, quite the opposite. The characters our two wanderers meet are quite diverse. Whether it’s a senile old man in the clutches of two villains, an order of nuns, a group of roadworkers, a proper prostitute (who makes Tess blush furiously!), a girl in need of rescue, monks protecting an ancient secret, or old friends… there are many stories contained within this larger one. And every story both teaches Tess something abut the world and about herself. The nagging voice in her head grows quieter, she stands taller, she slowly learns who she is.
I can’t express how touching certain moments of this book were. Although Tess is definitely not interested in romance, there is so much love in this story. Love between sisters – real love, that includes ugly fights – or love between friends like her and Pathka. Love for stories and adventure, and above all love for the Road and a desire to see what else the world has to offer. Not only Tess showed kindness to strangers, but strangers showed her kindness as well, and these seemingly random acts of humanity always make me a bit weepy. Yes, there are people who do bad things (whether that makes them bad people per se is up for anyone to decide), but there are also good people who will stand up for others and help those who need it.
If I haven’t made it clear enough yet, this was a fantastic book. I wasn’t a fan of the quigutl language – even as a German speaker, there were too many consonants in a row for my taste – but I did like the world building, especially the variety of Saints and their (sometimes crazy) teachings. Seeing the household Tess grew up in makes it much more understandable why she feels the way she does. If you’re taught all women are good for is suffering and doing their duty, then enjoying even the littlest thing makes you feel guilty. Tess has even bigger problems because according to her mother’s favored Saint, Tess is basically going straight to hell.
One thing I found quite curious while reading was how, whenever I put the book away, I wasn’t at all giddy to pick it up again. It’s not the kind of book that makes you want to know What Happens Next, it’s more a book that makes you think and thinking is best done while not reading a story. When I would pick it up again, I was hooked immediately every time and couldn’t quite understand why I wasn’t more excited to continue reading. So that’s not a bad thing, just something I found curious and more about myself than the book. The only negative thing I could say about this book is that some of the flashbacks didn’t feel quite right. Tess and Will’s prank on a fellow student, for example, felt weird and like it didn’t quite fit in with the rest of the story. I would have preferred some other anectode of Tess’ former life, but that’s really nitpicky of me and shouldn’t keep you from reading this book.
The ending was the one thing that could have ruined it. You’ll have guessed from my rating that it didn’t. Indeed, Hartman managed to find the perfect bittersweet spot (more on the sweet than the bitter side) that hit all the right notes and ended this story the exact way it should: with a beginning.
MY RATING: 8,5/10 – DAMN EXCELLENT!