May 31

Book Review: Tess of the Road

Tess of the Road (Tess of the Road, #1)

Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman

As with so many things in life, the strength of this book is also its weakness. This coming-of-age story has deep philosophy from many angles: purity and shame, wholeness and individuality, mysticism and the quest for knowledge. It’s not just a story about a girl who runs away from home to escape a bad home situation and find herself. It’s also a spiritual quest, albiet for her sidekick character. It touches on what it’s like to feel as though your body is shameful, what it’s like to encounter sudden fame, the affect of an abusive upbringing on adult behavior, dementia and elder abuse, technology wiping out old professions, war and politics, linguistics, plumbing, roadbuilding and geology. It’s got a little bit of everything in a familiar McFantasy setting. The strength is that there are so many facets to this story. The weakness is that not all the pieces comfortably fit.

I figured out pretty soon into this audiobook that there must be other books with Serafina as a main character, because while Tess is the main character of this, she’s somewhat eclipsed in her own story by her half-sister who is a living saint, friend to the queen, hero of the realm and all sorts of other things. Serafina is half dragon, and this is both an amazing and wonderful thing that explains her saintliness, and a shameful thing for which her father is disbarred. This dichotomy is not explained in this book, so I suppose if I want to figure out how the world works, I’ll have to read the other novels. This kind of irked me. The quigital (I’m guessing on the spelling) are dragon-like relatives, disdained by the dragons, who are so alien to humans that their blood isn’t even red. And yet the dragons can interbreed with humans? And half-dragon people have scales? Biologically, it just didn’t make sense. And yes, dragons don’t really make sense biologically, but the rest of the book was mostly non-magical so to have this so inexplicable was jarring.
I just couldn’t figure out what dragons were or weren’t. Some of the saur, the dragons, are professors at the university, and I was picturing lizard-people, but then they’re described as having curls (hair) and laps so I wasn’t sure. Maybe they’re not dragon, they’re “dragon” in a metaphoric sense. But then they charter a ship and someone says “why don’t they just fly” and at one point, they’re referenced as eating people. So are they dragons, like big flying lizards with teeth? Or are they “dragons” and are in human form and are something else? They formed such a huge part of the story I wanted it penciled in for me. Maybe if you’ve read all the others in this series it’s obvious, but to me it was off-putting and weird and unexplained.

Hartman writes like someone who knows an awful lot about a an awful lot of different subjects. She uses language beautifully, and as a linguist, I especially appreciated the nuanced way she talked about languages in the book (for example, the quigital can undersand Goreddi but can’t speak it because of how their mouths are.) I liked the quigial’s language, how it had a contradictory tense, like drywater or cold heat or the singular plural. Those are the delightful little thought-problems that keep me coming back to sci-fi and fantasy. I also liked that her sidekick had his own quest and his own personality, though for a girl who can’t get past “virgin=good/not-virgin=bad” she takes the gender-switching of the quigital amazingly in stride.

There were bits and pieces of interesting worldbuilding, but I never really felt like the bits and pieces added up to a cohesive whole. There’s the whole prudish-Victorian sex attitudes, where women are these pure vessels whose vaginas are so delicate that the insertion of a single penis can ruin them forever. Women can’t walk across the city unescorted without being seen as an unclaimed dollar bill begging to be taken. And yet women hold positions of leadership and men just shrug like it ain’t no thang instead of harassing these women and violently threatening them until they quit for taking a job that the men think belongs to men, as still happens in many places today. The quigital have amazing and unique magical creations, like thwips (basically a cell phone), and while Hartman does touch on how the thwips have basically destroyed the job of heralds, you have other advanced technology in a medieval world that somehow doesn’t alter the world at all, and you have medieval technology (sewage gets thrown into the river) without medieval drawbacks (rampaging cholera.) It’s not uncommon in fantasy (see: TSR’s D&D) but so many other things in this book were well-crafted that the disjointed worldbuilding kind of spoiled what would otherwise have been an amazing novel.

All in all, it’s a pretty good book, and probably better if you’ve read and enjoyed the others in this series as the parts with Serafina will feel like an old friend instead of a bizarre, unexplained sidenote. I do feel this book was a little longer than it needed to be, and I’m not so engaged with the characters (and I don’t care at all about the world) that I’m antsy to read the next one, but it had some good moments.

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