YA Weekend: Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: Book 1
Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers (February 27, 2018)
Length: 544 pages
I enjoyed Tess of the Road more than I expected, but probably less than I had hoped. I wasn’t a big fan of Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina duology when I read it, but nevertheless felt optimistic about her new book because I have a love for “wanderlust” stories and the description of Tess as a “troublemaker” immediately piqued my interest.
To her credit, our protagonist was living up to that promise from the start. When she was a little girl, Tess was caught trying to stage a pretend marriage between her twin sister and cousin because she wanted to know where babies came from. Just a child’s innocent curiosity, perhaps—but it does foreshadow a lot more to come. Years pass, and all of Tess’s energies have turned towards helping her sister Jeanne find a good husband, having ruined her own prospects in the eyes of her family. Society now considers her “damaged goods”, and Tess is forced to hide her past like a shameful secret. Lashing out at Jeanne’s wedding, she winds up drinking too much and causing a scene, jeopardizing the entire marriage. Driven to her last nerve, her mother decides to send her to a convent, but before any arrangements could be made, Tess dons the disguise of a boy and runs away, taking to the road.
What follows is an almost episodic narrative that traces the ups and downs of Tess’s journey as she travels across the land, meeting new people and trying new experiences. It is also a deeply personal tale of self-discovery and coming to terms with one’s own past.
The problem, however, is the book’s structure, consisting of a present timeline with flashbacks inserted throughout, revealing the events which made Tess such a social pariah and why her own family holds her in such contempt. In truth, it is not hard to guess; as I said, there were plenty of hints provided in the early pages. But knowing exactly what happened makes Tess a more sympathetic character and easier to understand, and unfortunately, these important details are held back until late into the novel. In light of these revelations, Tess’s troubled personality is cast in a different light, but of course, by then it might be too late for readers who have already made up their minds about her character.
The “episodic” nature of Tess’s adventures also made the pacing feel uneven. Some parts of the story, especially in the middle of the novel, were slow and I had some difficulty trying to stay focused. Most of the time, I just found myself hoping for another flashback so that I could find out more about Tess’s past. To be fair, the book did pick up again near the end with the introduction of Josquin, though by then my attention had already been severely tested.
Finally, Tess of the Road is a very “mature” book, dealing with a lot of issues modern teens face today. Personally, this made the story a much more compelling read, though I fear these themes might lose a bit of their significance due to the fantasy context, or they could potentially become a mere distraction to those who rightfully just want a bit of escapism. In a way, some of the novel’s greatest strengths are also its biggest drawbacks, and the mixed response from the YA community now makes a lot more sense to me.
Despite some of my mixed feelings, I’m still very excited to read the sequel. The book ends on a high note just as things were becoming interesting, promising more excitement in Tess’s future. For better or worse, I don’t think the next volume will focus as much on our protagonist’s inner turmoil, considering how far she has come in this first book with regards to realizing her own self-worth. As long as Tess continues to travel and grow as a character though, I can definitely get behind a more adventurous and action-oriented sequel.