Tess of the Road was a decent expansion of the world Rachel Hartman first showed us in her Seraphina duology. In Seraphina and Shadow Scale, we were given a world of mathematical dragons and the humans who were prejudiced against them, though both societies were held together with a peace treaty. Eventually, war began amongst them again and our heroine discovered a lot about herself and society. I really loved the political world building in that original duology, and also came to love the characters themselves. If you haven’t read that duology yet, then you should.
This book is set in the same world as Seraphina, but follows Tess, Seraphina’s younger half-sister. You don’t have to have read the duology to enjoy it, I don’t think, but it would definitely help you envision the world a bit better. Tess is kind of a troublemaker, and she doesn’t want to be the prim and proper lady-in-waiting that her twin sister is. She’s had some trouble in the past (which is revealed slowly throughout) and has pretty much been relegated to the black sheep of the family and no longer feels as though she has any agency in her own life. After making a mess at a large social gathering, she takes to the road, along with a quigutl (think a mini-dragon cousin–who dragons don’t like). Their adventures are what make up the bulk of the story.
What I really liked about this book was that it was socially conscious fantasy. It had a lot to say about women and how we move through the world, and the things we must do to keep ourselves safe. Tess’s story is deeply rooted in these issues, and they’re such an important thing to cover in our current moment. Not only does it show how women must take care when interacting with men, but it also shows how society and even those we love can contribute to a culture of silence and blame surrounding things like sexual assault (Trigger warnings!).
I’ve also seen a lot of reviewers say that Tess is unlikeable, and I think it’s great to have protagonists who are, but I didn’t find her unlikeable myself. Personally, I found her intriguing and real, and I feel like there’s so much more to unpack in her character that I really hope there are future installments of her story. She doesn’t always make the best choices, but who does? In fact, at times in the story, I just tried to will her from doing the things I could tell she was about to do, but we all have to make our mistakes. Tess was very human and I love having characters like that. No one is perfect, and I don’t need my book characters to be either.
Finally, while I enjoyed this book, there were a few parts that lagged and sometimes I felt like it could have picked up the pace just a teensy bit more. I did still read it in two days, though, so take that as you will. Also, while the reader gets some glimpses of Seraphina, I really would have loved more involvement with her and other characters from her story…but mainly because I miss them (honestly don’t think it would’ve worked if they were in it a lot more). It does seem like there are some openings for them to be more involved in the future, though. Overall, this was a pretty strong fantasy story with great coming of age elements, but also some great social commentary on the role of women in our world (trigger warnings for sexual assault).
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Note: I received a copy of this book from Netgalley and the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review.