Tess of the Road
by Rachel Hartman
I was really excited when Tess of the Road came up for galley and I was given a chance to review this much anticipated novel. A spin-off of the fantasy hit Seraphina, in which a young court musician is drawn into a delightful murder mystery involving dragons and intrigue, Tess of the Road reenters the world of Goredd by way of its predecessor’s younger half-sister. I’ve never read Seraphina but it is on my ever-growing TBR list, and I was drawn to the grass roots feel of the setting and characters.
The first few chapters of Tess were gripping. With a bird’s eye view into the childhood of Tess and her twin sister Jeanne, both of whom have grown up in the interminable shadow of their older sister Seraphina (who is more clever, better read, and prettier than they could ever hope to be), I was charmed by the pressing wit and undeniable sense of adventure that circled young Tess like a veritable aura. She could not help herself when her mind grasped upon even the tiniest threads of ideas, and many of them led her down paths that ended with spankings and admonishments, further cementing her status as “the problem child.” She was shameless in her quest for knowledge, a trait that remained glued to her side as Tess slid ungracefully into her adolescence and her young adult years, but it was also this push for all things academic that ended her in a very poor predicament – pregnant and alone, in a time when she should be preparing to fulfill her monetary obligations as first-born daughter and marry well to keep the family safe.
Drawn with an enigmatic pull by the stories of the roguish pirate Dozerius that she’d been obsessed with as a child, Tess thirsted for the great wide world and what lay beyond Goredd’s closely tended borders. For Tess, the way out would be through learning, but after attending several lectures with her cousin Kenneth, the young girl found her eyes shifting upon another source of adventure. Will, a dynamic academic in league with the local educational center that fancied itself on the forefront of discovery and studies, caught her heart from nearly the moment she laid eyes on him. Here was the first man to ever take Tess seriously; a man who found her interesting and full of bright ideas. He appreciated her mind and for that, Tess allowed him to appreciate her body – despite the biblical words of her mother grinding into her eardrums all the while. But things did not turn out the way Tess would have thought.
As a result, the life Tess was bound to by duty became undone, and she was spirited away into the countryside to give birth in secret. The sins of her past have haunted her for two years, but she has put those years into good stead, carving out an honorable place for Jeanne in court and assisting to find a husband for her sister that can save the family from their impending monetary ruin. Wine and spirits have helped to lubricate the days and endless nights of her pilgrimage, and it’s also allowed Tess to mask the pain that is etched so deep within her soul. The loss of Will, the abandonment of their child, the stabbing guilt at having been knocked down from her place of worth as first daughter . . . they are all things that have snuffed out the spirit of Tess Dombegh.
But as the light of a new day dawns upon the girl, as harsh as the headache her hangover is inducing, Tess decides on another path. She could do as her parents are insisting and settle herself in a nunnery, a place where she will surely have any life left in her stifled and burnt out like a troublesome candle’s flame in the shadows of night. Or, she could take Seraphina’s not-so-subtle advice and put her new boots to road, striking out on her own and hopefully finding a bit of herself along the way.
Of course, Tess chooses the latter, and thus a story is made . . . weaving together the superstitious nature of a undesired species, a quest for treasures that lie deep within the ground, the healing powers of a curious legend, and many odd characters along the way into a tapestry of fantasy.
Dressed like a boy and ready to steal for her supper, Tess meets up with an old friend and ally, but also finds herself in a nest full of unsavory creatures. She will make choices that define good and evil, learn an honest day’s work for an honest wage, and carefully crack open the egg of pain that is so firmly nestled into the aching pit of her stomach. Tess will become a pirate of her own road, coming to grips with the sins of her past and putting old anguish to bed.
Tess of the Road is the newest novel by YA fantasy author Rachel Hartman, a writer best known for her acclaimed Seraphina series. While readers will recognize the dusty and antiquated land of Goredd and its surrounding cities, they will get a closer look at the elements to be found in them and what lies beyond the edges of town. Hartman has a flair for illustrating beautiful visions of hard beaten paths and fields of wheat, as well as of richly drawn characters that hold admirable and ridiculous qualities that can make them turn foe from friend on a dime, and then back again. Tess is one of those such characters; she is unrepentant and unruly, and that should make her likable . . . right?
While the overall writing of this novel was lovely and well-placed, I was completely shocked at how terrible the story was. I don’t use this term of phrase lightly, but it felt like a knock-off. I was captivated by the first few chapters of the novel, feeling a fresh take to the time-old tale of a misunderstood eccentric who knew she did not belong, and as such, decided it was time to forge her own way . . . but as the story actually got it’s footing, so to speak, I was shocked. Was I reading Wicked all over again? The politics, the creatures, the love affair – they all felt way too Elphaba’ish and I quickly soured. The story that I thought I was reading seemed to morph into something nearly unreadable and loathsome, with a storyline so convoluted and nonsensical that I became offended by the way the author’s flowery language tried to cover it up. The plot went nowhere. The characters did not evolve. There was zero resolution. If the author’s plan was to bring things to a close via a sequel, good luck to her – I won’t be going anywhere near it.
If I wasn’t a finisher, I would have put this book down little more than halfway through. It was so disappointing; if a book is going to be terrible, I’d rather it open that way instead of sucking me in with a few well-plotted chapters before diving off into the deep end of a dark ocean with its slime and sludge. My time was wasted, plain and simple. Every time I felt that the story was going to start ramping back up to something I could relate to and made sense, it would veer left again into a silly plot line that held no place or purpose and dead-ended. Hartman did not do Tess the justice she deserved; in fact it felt as if Seraphina continued to do what she had done to Tess all along – overshadowed her and outshone her at nearly every turn. Serpahina popped up so much that it felt as if this book belonged to her; Tess was portrayed as someone who was striking out to make her own choices and find herself but instead, she was being coddled and protected nearly the entire way by forces she could not see (and in my opinion, forces she would not have appreciated).
I did not like this book, and as a result, I will not be reading Seraphina – I don’t care how good people say it is. 2 stars to this new novel, and nothing more.