This book was… an experience.
I got it on a whim, as an ebook from my local library a few weeks ago, because I liked the cover art. Without reading the synopsis on the back. In my defense, the cover has a dragon on it, and I love anything and everything with dragons.
It has since come to my attention that it isn’t, technically, the first book in a series, even though it was advertised this way on my library’s website. It is in fact a companion book set in the world of another series by the same author, the Southlands series. On Goodreads, a reader asked the author if it was necessary to read the other novels set in the same universe first, to which she answered :
It’s not strictly necessary, especially if you’re the kind of reader who likes to hit the ground running (I am, so I know we exist!). My husband recommends reading SERAPHINA first, at least, to get an idea how the world works.Rachel Hartman
Since I am part of the group of readers who like to hit the ground running, it didn’t bother me that much to not have all the information at the beginning, but if you like to be a little more informed, I would still recommend you don’t start with this one.
In the medieval kingdom of Goredd, women are expected to be ladies, men are their protectors, and dragons get to be whomever they want. Tess, stubbornly, is a troublemaker. You can’t make a scene at your sister’s wedding and break a relative’s nose with one punch (no matter how pompous he is) and not suffer the consequences. As her family plans to send her to a nunnery, Tess yanks on her boots and sets out on a journey across the Southlands, alone and pretending to be a boy.
Where Tess is headed is a mystery, even to her. So when she runs into an old friend, it’s a stroke of luck. This friend is a quigutl—a subspecies of dragon—who gives her both a purpose and protection on the road. But Tess is guarding a troubling secret. Her tumultuous past is a heavy burden to carry, and the memories she’s tried to forget threaten to expose her to the world in more ways than one.
What I liked
It’s not easy to write such a slow, coming-of-age, character-driven story, and Rachel Hartman does it extremely well. Tess of the road is a love letter to girls growing up – normal girls, flawed girls, loud girls – whoever you are, there is something for you in this book. Tess’s journey around the world is also a spectacular journey of self-discovery, and the complex world in which she grows feels extremely real – yes, even with the dragons.
The road was possibility, the kind she’d thought her life would never hold again, and Tess herself was motion. Motion had no past, only future. Any direction you walked was forward, and that was as must be.Tess of the road, Rachel Hartman
This story touches on some pretty heavy topics, like sexual assault, abuse, grooming, miscarriages, death and grief, alzheimer’s disease, and religious extremism – if you are sensible to those topics, you might want to be aware of that. But Hartman’s writing never feels voyeuristic or awkward. Instead, she talks about the struggles of her main character’s life with tact, and gives you an unlikeable, angry, bitter heroine who you nevertheless end up loving and hoping for the best possible outcome.
I also appreciated a lot the inclusion of neutral pronouns, and the in-world explanation given for it. I found it very thoughtful and interesting, and would like to see more of that in future fantasy books !
What I didn’t like
Not much. Even though the pace was extremely slow, I couldn’t put this book down once I started reading it. I don’t usually read extremely raw stories, but this one was absolutely excellent. I’m not that convinced about the Young Adult qualification, though – based on the heaviness of the story, I would have put this in the New Adult range, at least.
I wouldn’t recommend this book to everyone, but if you aren’t bothered by the themes it covers and like character-driven stories ? Go for it. It’s extremely well written, and it will make you feel like you want to put on your boots and travel the world. (Although, during this pandemic, it might be a little wiser to travel to your garden or your living room, just to be safe.)