Tess Of The Road, by Rachel Hartman

Matt Shipley (he/him) // Co-Editor-In-Chief

In the medieval kingdom of Goredd, women are expected to be ladies, men are their protectors, and dragons get to be whomever they want. Tess, stubbornly, is a troublemaker. You can’t make a scene at your sister’s wedding and break a relative’s nose with one punch (no matter how pompous he is) and not suffer the consequences. As her family plans to send her to a nunnery, Tess yanks on her boots and sets out on a journey across the Southlands, alone and pretending to be a boy.

After a week of reading (I was busy, okay?) I finished what may be my favourite book I’ve ever read. To anyone who enjoys high fantasy, but isn’t a die-hard Tolkien purist, Tess Of The Road presents a powerful and wholly unique adventure that breaks a plethora of the age-old fantasy tropes we’ve all read a thousand times. While it may not take everyone a week to read, it’s a long book (over five hundred pages!) so I would approach it when you have a whole day to kill.

I started this book with only an assumed inkling of how it would play out, and it blew away all my expectations. Delicate and respectful, missing the worldly stakes of conventional fantasy and yet still wholly enrapturing, it was refreshingly unique beyond anything I had anticipated. The characters were strong and coherent, the various interactions were exquisitely written — I, as a near-non-dreamer, found myself exploring the world and its vivid townships in my sleep.

The Good:

With a gorgeous map, extensive background lore and a massive cast of both characters and faceless saints, Tess Of The Road starts out as one of the more fleshed-out fantasies I’ve read. Tess (our main character) is believable and utterly relatable, and the thorough changes she experiences throughout the pages only serves to deepen the mutual understanding between her and the reader.

What might be my favourite part of this book would also be a detractor in many readers’ eyes: the book does not lean on a romantic subplot. Tess’s own war of attrition with herself is more than enough to drive the plot forward, and romance only worms its way in when Tess is ready for it. This story could so easily have been a “good man saves traumatized girl from herself through the power of love,” and I am so, so glad that it wasn’t. It was utterly respectful to Tess’s experience, and that does not happen nearly enough in fantasy.

The Bad:

Everything in here is massively subjective — I loved this book, so I’ll reach pretty far here. Number one is imagery: I knew where Tess was, what the world around her entailed and who the characters were, but I found myself losing the micro element of the world immediately surrounding her – what did it feel like? Look like? Smell like? The lack of raw imagery fit better in this book more than most, in no small part because of Tess’s unique point of view, but I found my imagination stretching in all sorts of ways to build an image of the immediate surroundings. Number two is the length: while I love long books, and every page felt necessary, it was a Very Long Book. The longest manuscript I’ve ever written reached 118,000 words, and this felt every bit as long, if not even longer.

All in all, you’ll definitely see me recommending this book to anyone willing to ask. It’s unique, respectful, refreshing and gorgeously written. The vocabulary is dense and complex, but it feels necessary. The world is vast and believable, and the characters — I truly have no words. If you’re just reading this column to search for your next favourite book, read no further. I doubt I’ll top this by April.


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