Tess of the Road, Rachel Hartman: Book Review

In which an unexpected journey unfolds.

tess of the road rachel hartman book review
Tess of the Road Book Cover Tess of the Road
Rachel Hartman
Young Adult, Fantasy
Random House
February 27, 2018

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.

Tess of the Road filled me with expectations, many of which were never met, sadly enough. Although the stunning cover lead me to believe that this would be a story about an epic adventure between a girl and a dragon, not much happens in this spin-off to Seraphina written by Rachel Hartman. While there is a journey, whereupon an incredible transformation of self-discovery unfolds, a great deal is lacking. Hidden underneath oppressive scripture, however, are a few gems that show promise – a short-lived relationship, the uncovering of an ancient species of dragon, and the start of a new journey with an unexpected friend.

This is an ARC review of Rachel Hartman’s Tess of the Road, which releases February 27, 2018.

*Special thanks to Random House for allowing us to read and review ahead of publication.

This review contains quotes from the book.

Books are often used to tell stories and share experiences, and Tess of the Road is no different. Under the guise of fantasy, Rachel Hartman tells an important story through Tess, who is generally viewed as a troublemaker because she does not embody values typically expected of women. She is blunt, adventurous, and imaginative – even when she is forced into court life, she dreams of pirates, travel, and knowledge, aspirations that are “unladylike”.

Raised in a conservative and religious household, Tess is expected to be pure, innocent and as virginly as possible. As such, she is constantly rebuked for her past. She is the troubled daughter, the one that has, despite trying her best, been ridiculed and shamed for her “sins”. The sins in question? Tess has attended lectures and she has fallen in love, all before the age of sixteen. The fact that she has shown feelings toward a man at all is looked down upon – as, much like the Victorian period, in Tess’ world, women are expected to hide their emotions. They are to remain docile, uninterested and secluded until a proper suitor comes along – and Tess is having none of it.

By telling the tale of Tess, Hartman describes the shame, ridicule and pain that children raised in strict households must feel, especially when family values and traditions go against everything the child is interested in. Although Tess of the Road strives to be a novel of female empowerment and freedom, the first half of the novel, which details Tess’ home life and inner thoughts upon beginning her journey toward freedom, is so oppressive. So much so, in fact, that I struggled to understand where the novel was headed – I felt beaten, defeated, and infuriated with the constant inclusion of scripture that describes not only the “proper” lifestyle of a woman, but also, supposed acts of “sin”.

“You must understand, boys and men are afflicted with bodily lusts. They will try to coax and cajole you into bed, but you must resist. ‘If you won’t renounce temptation, O woman, there is no saving you. The Infernum burns hottest for the unrepentant harlot,’ says St. Vitt, Heaven hold him.”

– excerpt from Rachel Hartman’s Tess of the Road

Due to the nature of society and Tess’ mysterious past, she has very few options for employment now that she is 17, as she has destroyed her chances at marriage, presumably because she had sex out of wedlock. Looking for a better option, and in part to escape her torturous home life in which her mother provides her with constant mental abuse for being “born bad”, when confronted with the nunnery or life on the road, Tess begins her journey alone and unprepared, except for a pair of beautifully crafted boots given to her by her half-sister, Seraphina.

Not only does the scripture make women look bad, but it’s as if men are only capable of thinking about sex – in fact, these scriptures are so ingrained in Tess’ mind that she fears men when she starts her travels, believing that they will use, abuse and rape her as she is a lone woman on the road. You might wonder how she travels comfortably then? By disguising herself as a boy, of course, as it will offer her safety.

Although quite a few people see through Tess’ disguise when she seeks work, I found it somewhat insulting that she had to take on an alternate persona in order to get by in life. Not only to obtain work, but to seek out an education and even provide academic theories, Tess needs to be male. While the “girl pretends to be a boy” trope is quite common, Tess is portrayed as such a strong-willed and bold character at the beginning of the novel – in fact, that’s what I loved about her. She wasn’t afraid to ask questions or assert her opinion.

Her imagination and refusal to completely conform to society’s standards for women was an attractive quality that demonstrated that you don’t have to be someone else in order to succeed. All of these ideas are immediately shut down when Tess pretends to be a boy. She loses power because she is only able to assert herself as someone else, that is until the final stretch of the novel.

Despite the heavy handed scripture and oppressive values that color the pages of the majority of Tess of the Road, Hartman discusses a number of important topics. By reiterating scripture, Hartman acknowledges that the values in place are harmful, which is demonstrated in Tess’ actions. At the start of her journey, Tess is alone with her thoughts. They break her and, in a way, encourage her to try new things, which, in turn, shows Tess another side of life. Through experience, she is able to break out of her shell, while breaking free from her abusive and negligent parents, who, it is revealed, are glad to be rid of her.

If anything, Hartman describes mental illness and the stigmas associated with sex and drinking, while encouraging self-discovery. As Tess experiences more and meets new people, she learns that society is not what she believes it to be. She learns not only to love others, but also to love herself. Through life’s simple joys, she rediscovers herself and finds meaning in existence. It’s quite beautiful, though, if I’m being honest, elements of fantasy are somewhat forgotten.

Tess finds companionship in an old friend, Pathka, who is a quigutl, a dragon sub-species. While the quigutl are described, I found the early passages describing their language and values confusing, which could potentially be a side-effect of having not read Seraphina. I went in expecting dragons, and was greeted by creatures that seemed more like monstrous insects. The world fell a little flat for me, with the only redeeming factor being the idea that ancient dragons live beneath the fringes of society.

All in all however, Tess of the Road brings a number of important issues to the forefront. Although Tess must hide behind the guise of a boy for quite some time, her journey of self-discovery ends in happiness. She reveals her dark past, wherein you learn to hate her parents even more, but she finds love and knowledge, two things that she needed in her life. If you can get past scripture and torment, Tess’ journey is worth reading – you may not agree with everything in Tess of the Road, but you will come to appreciate Tess’ interactions, her increased knowledge, and her short romantic encounter with an equal.


Melissa Ratcliff
the authorMelissa Ratcliff
Senior Staff Writer
Reader, Writer & Translator. Cats, books and video games are my life.