REVIEW: Tess of the Road – An Honest Look at the Feisty Girl Warrior Trope
Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman looks at what it really means to be a teenage girl, dependent on your family when all you truly want to do is travel the world seeking a legendary World Serpent.
I want to start this review by sharing an anecdote to explain how much I enjoyed this novel. Recently, I flew halfway across the US and arrived in a city at 1am. Due to a miscommunication about whether “1am on Sunday” happens after Saturday night or before Monday morning, I was locked out of the house I was supposed to be staying at. After frantically texting everyone I knew in the area with no luck, I resigned myself to sitting in the back alley until the local Starbucks opened at 6am. And I literally did not even care because I had this book with me. I read all 500 pages of it under the glow of a streetlamp, reaching the final scene just as the sun rose in some kind of beautiful metaphor. OK, so now that I’ve set up expectations, let me tell you about this book.
Tess of the Road, published in 2018 by Rachel Hartman follows Tess Dombegh, who would rather travel the world looking for a legendary World Serpent than be a lady-in-waiting at the court. So far, so typical Feisty Girl Warrior book, right? But Hartman totally transforms that trope by taking a brutally honest look at what it would actually mean to be a teenage girl in a family dependant on your marriage for financial success, in a society where all your value is in your virginity.
Tess is 17 when the present action begins, but still reeling from the consequences of events that took place when she was 13. What exactly happened in her younger years is told slowly, carefully, in bits and pieces as Tess herself processes what happened. Through the confidence and independence she gains while on her travels, she is able to more openly acknowledge her past, others’ culpability for her pain, and her own actions that she wishes she could change. Although the external quest — and the surrounding world of magic, sentient dragons, and a complex religious system — is definitely intriguing, Tess’s internal journey to reclaim her body and, ultimately her life, is what really drives this story
By the novel’s conclusion, Tess has clearly changed, yet there is no perfect resolution — something I found satisfying in its realism. Additionally, there is a sequel in the works, so it makes sense that Tess still has room to grow.
Note that Tess of the Road takes place in the same world as Hartman’s two other novels, Seraphina and Shadow Scale, and occasionally references events from those books, but it’s definitely not necessary to have read the other books to enjoy Tess’s story.