Sparked by a whim, I purchased Rachel Hartman’s Tess of the Road last year and promptly shelved it for a later day. Following two disappointing reads, the urge for a fantastical journey overtook me. Tess of the Road looked like it would fit the bill. I embarked on this trek without any prior knowledge of Hartman’s work. The road unfurled before me, and each stop along this particular expedition struck my fancy in new ways.
Tess is the black sheep of her family. Her twin sister, Jeanne, is only a few minutes younger than Tess, but the Dombegh family has placed her at the top of the courting order to seek a profitable marriage for their failing house. Tess is treated like a disgrace for past transgressions, which remain shrouded in mystery at first and are slowly unraveled throughout the story. When it becomes clear Tess is bound to be forfeited to a nunnery, she flees her life and sets out on the road. Soon, she encounters Pathka, her childhood quigutl (lizard-person) friend. Together they seek to find themselves and explore the wonders of the world.
I often take to Goodreads once I’ve made reasonable progress in a book to see what other readers think (avoiding spoilers, of course). This habit can be a tad masochistic, sure, but it usually summons a laugh or two. The Goodreads reviews of Tess are extraordinarily mixed, and on the negative side, people seem to think “nothing happens” in the book. I want to quell any worry a reader might have at seeing this. Lots happens in Tess. The book is a coming-of-age journey, a dive into self-discovery and trauma recovery. It isn’t a sword and sorcery where each page bristles with action. I adored the vignette-ish style of the tale, and I constantly yearned to see what Tess and Pathka would encounter next so I could see how they’d deal with it.
To me, Tess felt like a series of vignettes, blips on a map connected by the thread of trails between them. I found the format charming and sad at once. Tess realizes, in equal measure, that the world contains delightful wonders she’d never considered. She also discovers it’s filled with trickery and violence. As I read Tess of the Road, I felt a sense of longing and fulfillment at once, and that deft balance made for one of the more unique stories I’ve read all year.
Now, let’s touch on the characters. Tess is the obvious star of the show. She’s a multi-dimensional protagonist, and I felt privileged to accompany her on this journey. Her layers peel back slowly throughout the book. We witness her best and worst traits. We see Tess reckon with the expectations and perspectives of the people around her as she grapples with who she is. Her past contains no small amount of tragedy, and discovering the harrowing details makes this otherwise action-less book a page-turner in its own right.
If Tess wins the Oscar for the lead role, Pathka gets the supporting actor award. (Note: Quigutl can change genders and have a generic pronoun—“ko”—for themselves, but during the main events of the novel, Tess addresses Pathka as “He” so I will do the same). Pathka isn’t content to assimilate into human culture. He’d rather scour the lands for traces of the legendary World Serpents from his people’s stories. Hartman builds the Quigutl culture with the same deftness I’d expect from Becky Chambers, whom I consider one of the best writers of other species currently producing work.
Other than the book’s overall atmosphere, Hartman’s prose is my favorite aspect of the novel. Hartman writes with a distinct perspective and unique voice. She uses simple similes to conjure cohesive visuals. Her dialogue flows like a gentle brook. Conversations between characters feel so real, as if they’re happening right in front of you. All of this binds the book into a unified whole that reads quite breezily but still has creative depth.
Hartman’s worldbuilding is my only minor sticking point with Tess of the Road. The world within these pages is stunning and vibrant, populated by multiple cultures, languages, and customs. My only quibble is that it seems to expect a lot of the reader early on. It gets easier to identify certain words and phrases as the book progresses, which makes trust in Hartman well-placed. In the novel’s early aughts, though, words will come and pass with reckless abandon, and you have to do the work to place them within the world. My guess is this becomes easier if you read other books within Hartman’s vivid world, so this is probably a gripe unique to readers who encounter Tess first.
At first, I felt disappointed at the ending of Tess. The feeling quickly subsided. It was never about the destination. Wherever you end is just a chance to begin another journey. I looked back on my time with Tess of the Road and smiled. It was an unexpected delight, randomly plucked from my shelves on a whim. Sometimes that’s how the best journeys begin.
Rating: Tess of the Road – 9.0/10