Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman Review

Rating: 5 out of 5.

“I feel called,’ said Tess, feeling it again, groping around for words to clothe it in. “To walk into the world, to see what’s needed, and do it. To uncurl myself and respond.”

“Sometimes you can’t fix what you broke. Sometimes you just have to live with it.”

The first comparison that popped into my head upon reading this book was in fact Homer’s The Odyssey. Both protagonists go on a hard-fought journey, buoyed along by a string of memorable companions and encounters. Both protagonists are deeply complicated, deeply clever, and deeply flawed. One of the major things that differentiates Tess from Odysseus, however (besides the many, obvious things that differentiate Tess from Odysseus) is that Odysseus’ journey is fundamentally, a nostos , a homecoming. Tess’ goal is explicitly the opposite: the purpose of her journey is to take her as a far from home as possible. While Odysseus’ journey allows him to find a place he has lost, Tess’ allows her to find a person she has lost: herself.

This is one of the most deeply character driven fantasy novels I have read in a very long time. I ADORED Tess. At the start of the novel, she is mean. She is angry. She is bitter. She has also suffered a deep, painful trauma, one which unspools itself over the course of the novel as we learn our narrator is unreliable in her internal monologue, unready to unpack her history either to herself or to the reader. The novel hops between the past and the present as Tess fights to change her life while also slowly explaining what happened to make it so in the first place. There were parts of this that were incredibly hard to read. There were parts of this that were incredibly cathartic to read. The ache of existing as a woman, and the trials and tribulations that come with it, were incredibly poignant. I was dumbfound to see a fantasy book that I had originally expected to be a light-hearted YA romp touch my soul.

This is a book about learning to heal, about taking control of one’s life, about rejecting so-called truths that have been fed to you and learning to create a self that is divorced from the box the world has forced you into. Tess embarks on a journey not only of self-discovery but of other discovery, as the things she learns about herself in turn cause her to reevaluate her judgments of others and of the world. This is a book about learning to move forward when moving forward seems impossible, about learning to lift your head up and live when just the act of waking seems hard. It reminds you, as is Tess’ mantra throughout the novel, of the importance of just two simple words: walk on .

Things to note: 1) This book is paced VERY slowly, but it is slow pacing done at its absolute best. I didn’t think I was one for slow pacing but this book told me otherwise. Something to keep in mind before reading it though. 2) I would HIGHLY, HIGHLY recommend reading Hartman’s Seraphina duology, or at least the first one, before reading this. While *technically* this novel can stand alone, the two series’ take place in the same universe and involve several of the same characters. I read the oringial duology a couple years ago, and while I remembered some of it, I very much wished that I had the whole thing fresh in my head. While they can exist separately, I think it adds a lot to this story to have read the Seraphina duology first just for the purpose of understanding certain characters and context. Additionally, tw // rape, sexual assault, and alcoholism

Published by Emma Wolfe

My name is Emma, and I am a Clinical Psychology PhD hopeful doing research in Boston. In my spare time, I am also a book reviewer and blogger. I specialize in science fiction and fantasy, but enjoy genre-bending literature of all kinds. I am also an amateur creative writer; my work has been published in national undergraduate literary magazines such as The Albion Review and the Allegheny Review.

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