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.

Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman

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

Author Information: Website | Twitter

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.

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23 Comments on “YA Weekend: Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman

  1. Pingback: YA Weekend: Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman — The BiblioSanctum | Fantasy Gift Sources: Book Reviews, Article Resources, News

  2. I have this for review and I’ve also been reading all the mixed reviews. I’m having trouble figuring out Tess’ age, she sounds like she’s had lots of experience but she’s running away so she can’t be that old. Interesting, I’m so curious now!

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  3. Holding back on the important revelations that should have made the reader more sympathetic toward the main character does not look like a well-thought-out strategy, indeed… That said, Tess sounds quite interesting and I would not mind learning more about her. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

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    • It was one of the major downsides of the dual time line format for this book. I can understand why Hartman decided to do it this way, but it did hurt readers’ perception of the main character, which I thought was a shame.

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  4. Doing flashbacks to help reveal character motives is tricky to pull off for the exact complain you had: sometime it takes too long. Though, since this is a series, and you have gained that sympathy, in theory the following installments shouldn’t suffer from that same fate?

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  5. I’m going back and forth on whether I want to read the book that follows this one. It’s highly likely I will because I do like Hartman’s story & writing and I do like Tess, but the events at the end just didn’t work for me. I do agree with you though that some revelations came too late in the story though it was easy to guess what they would be.
    I do like that we get a different perspective of Seraphina. That was great.

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    • I did like reading about Seraphina again from a different perspective! And I agree, this was a flawed book despite the fantastic writing. I think we’ve gotten through the “hump” though, for what it’s worth, so the next book should be more eventful.

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  6. I didn’t really care for the Seraphina duology either, so I figured it would be best if I skipped this one. I feel like I wouldn’t love the whole episode thing. And Hartman’s writing never seems to work for me. And it’s part of a series? Ehhh. I’m glad you enjoyed it and I hope you like the sequel. I’ll await your thoughts on that one, in the future!

    Have a wonderful weekend, Mogsy. =)

    Alyssa @ The Eater of Books!

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    • Yes, I believe this will be a series, since the way the book ended implied there will be more adventures to come. I actually think I liked this book better than the Seraphina books, despite its flaws, so I’m looking forward to see how the sequel will go 😀

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  7. I’m intrigued by this one and may very well read it. I’ve read conflicting reviews but the two things I’ve heard repeated are that this isn’t the same as the author’s previous series – which I haven’t read and therefore wouldn’t be an issue for me – but also, that this has a much darker feel. I do like a book with a dark feel so I’m sort of on the brink of picking up a copy of this.
    Lynn 😀

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  8. I thought this was a standalone? I’d love to read more because that ending was definitely great, but I think I remember seeing somewhere it wasn’t set to be a new series?

    Anyway, great review! I’m still struggling with my own because I have so many mixed feelings and am afraid to reveal too much!

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    • Hmm, not sure, but the way it ended, it definitely feels like the start of a new series because the character was about to start on a new adventure to resolve another conflict. I suppose the author could end things like that, but I imagine quite a few readers would be miffed that we wouldn’t find out what happens 😀

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  9. I’ve been meaning to read this review ever since it posted, but life kind of got in the way this week… So I’m glad to finally read this, and to know you liked the book despite some criticisms. I’d read another “middle of the road-ish” review of Tess of the Road, so when it’s my turn to read it, I’ll know to keep my expectations reasonable.

    Although… it’s over 500 pages, and the middle seemed kind of slow? Oh dear…

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  10. Pingback: Mogsy’s Bookshelf Roundup: Stacking the Shelves & Recent Reads | The BiblioSanctum

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