Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman
This is the third book I’ve read by Rachel Hartman set in her fictional word. I absolutely loved the first, Seraphina, and was greatly disappointed by the second, Shadow Scale. Unfortunately, Tess of the Road (2018) falls more toward the latter than the former, making for another disappointing foray into this setting.
While set in the same world and in roughly the same timeline as the first books (it covers a lot of ground thanks to flashbacks, so there’s both overlapping and later events), and sharing as well some of the same characters in minor roles, Tess of the Road is meant to stand — and does — as its own novel, with no need to have read the others first.
Tess is one of a trio of sisters, with half-sister/half-dragon Seraphina as the oldest (by another mother) and Tess and Jeanne the younger twins. For reasons that are eventually revealed, the family has been pretending that Jeanne is the “oldest” twin so she might be the first to be marred, a goal that Tess has been working hard to achieve. When Jeanne does find a relatively wealthy husband (thus saving the family), Tess thinks she might finally have her freedom from courtly requirements and family obligations. Jeanne wants her at her new home, though, while her parents want her in a convent. Nobody, meanwhile, seems much concerned about what Tess wants, especially after she makes a drunken spectacle of herself the night of Jeanne’s wedding. Gifted a pair of fine leather boots by more-of-a-sister-than-she-seems Seraphina, Tess takes them as the “suggestion” they are meant as and heads out on her own to find her own way. Eventually she joins a childhood friend Pathka, a lizard-like “quigutl,” on a mystical quest for one of seven world serpents. Tess has many adventures along the way and does eventually come into her own, though not before she resolves a past trauma and overcomes her mother’s strict misogynistic religion.
For a good amount of time, about a quarter to a third of Tess of the Road, this was about as close to a Did Not Finish as I’ve come to without actually quitting, with only my memory of how good Seraphina was convincing me to give it more of a chance. There’s no doubt I would have put it down well before that if it hadn’t been for my fond memory of Hartman’s first novel. A main character doesn’t need to be likable, but they do need to be compelling (more so if they are not the first), and Tess was neither. Whiny, drunken, self-focused — there was nothing particularly redeeming or interesting in her character or her story. The childhood flashbacks, the lead-up to the proposal, the wedding; it all felt like one great prologue, and I just couldn’t figure out why I was spending my time reading about almost any of it. In classic writer’s workshop style, I wanted to point to about 27% of the way in and say, “here is where your story begins.”
Except even then, when she steps out onto the road, Tess of the Road didn’t hold my attention much, as it became a meandering episodic story with what felt like random encounters that either didn’t carry enough weight narratively or thematically or, on the flip side, became too obvious in their blunt connections to theme. The world serpent quest got bogged down in its own abstract mysticism, I quite often had a hard time with basic logistics and plausibility, and a parallel tale of Pathka and her/his (gender is more fluid in that species) offspring was at times too on the nose and other times too sporadic. And the flashbacks that eventually fill in what happened to Tess to turn her into the broken person we meet at the start come in fits and starts, sometimes with too much time between them and sometimes with spending too much time in them. Pacing, therefore, was a major problem. And I’m not sure the change we see in her or her life situation (and this holds true for another character as well) is earned at the end.
There are positive elements. The questions raised about the role of women, about consent, about unfair burdens of social responsibility, the often hateful attitude of religion toward women and toward the body. And Hartman offers up some strong passages/lines, as when for instance Tess notes that “There was nothing so fine it couldn’t be spoiled by family,” or when Pathka relates the great serpent myth.
But these moments were too few and far between and couldn’t for me make up for the plodding start, the pacing issues, the episodic structure that couldn’t seem to carefully select what to show and what not to show, muddy logistics, unlikable characters, and implausible or overly coincidental events. Tess of the Road ends with Tess about to strike out for more adventures, and while I can’t recommend this book, assuming there is a sequel I’ll give it a shot based on Seraphina and the flashes in Tess of the Road.
Tess of the Road had such promise! I honestly didn’t mind the premise of traveling and meeting people in this story but like you said, the pacing was not well-done and there were too many unrelated happenings. It’s too bad because the author’s writing is beautiful. In my own review, I stated that a story like this would seem more fitting for a historical and literary genre than fantasy.
I agree that her writing itself is often wonderful, and definitely does have a more literary flair to it. Plot wasn’t her strong point in Seraphina (which I thought excellent) but that was fine as characterization and theme were so strong. This one just didn’t have enough to balance the weaknesses I thought, though I”ll keep reading her thanks to that beautiful writing you noted in hopes she puts it all together again