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By Rachel Hartman
Random House Books for Young Readers, 2018
Three years ago on this very blog, I turned myself into a pretzel trying to convey my delight in Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina duology, a pair of fantasies about a richly multicultural human/dragon society and an inspired young woman breaking free from convention.
Hartman’s at it again in TESS OF THE ROAD, set in the same world as the earlier books, and once again we’re all going nuts. (Four starred reviews!) Yet again the first book of a duology, TESS gives us another young woman held down by the stultifying conventions of Goredd, the most hidebound of nations. We watch her break free first physically, then psychologically and spiritually, on a road trip across borders and prejudices. Yet again, we are entranced.
I don’t think it’s necessary to have read the Seraphina books, although the events in them do predate this story and there might be some broader context missing. It’s fun recognizing old friends in the new book, but I suspect it would be just as much fun the other way around.
Tess is Seraphina’s younger stepsister, one of a pair of twins born to Seraphina’s father and a horrendous mother, intractably religious, snobby, and bigoted. The “bigoted” part mostly has to do with dragons, mathematically-minded philosophers who are able to assume a human form and co-exist uncomfortably with humans. In the first duology, the humans and dragons fell into a war, but that’s all over now.
Seventeen-year-old Tess is naturally rebellious, and has destroyed her social chances by losing her virginity (in what is essentially a date-rape) and becoming pregnant. Back home after giving birth, she becomes handmaiden to her lovely twin sister, hoping to win her a splendid court marriage that will save the family bacon. When the wedding day arrives she gets drunk and punches her new brother-in-law, so now she’s destined for the convent.
Instead, prodded by the unconventional Seraphina, she finds herself dressing as a boy and taking off down the road, seeking oblivion. She runs across her childhood friend Pathka, a small, intelligent, spiritually-minded dragon called a quigutl, whose race is particularly adept at inventing and fabricating technology in an otherwise medieval land. She joins his quest, searching for a giant, mythical serpent sacred to his race, keeping body and soul together through theft, cons, and manual labor.
Tess is a wonderful, difficult character, mired in self-hatred, always hearing her mother’s toxic, disapproving voice in her head. Watching her slow healing and release is a privilege and a triumph. Pathka is another marvel: tortured, loyal, irascible, brilliant. Maybe not such a great parent. (We meet his kid.)
This book doesn’t have the broad political sweep of the Seraphina books, although it looks like the second book might. Seraphina had a personal quest, but also she was trying to save the world. I missed the saarantrai, the exotic, conflicted dragons in human form, pursuing mathematical order despite the perplexities of human emotions. But Tess and Pathka’s quest, and what they found at the end of it, more than made up for any loss.
Marvelous, marvelous book.
(Dear FCC: I bought this book with my own money, because how could I not? Nobody cares if I review it. Hey . . . how about that Sinclair Broadcast Group? Isn’t monopoly supposed to be a bad thing?)