• The Bossy Bookworm

Review of Tess of the Road (Tess of the Road #1) by Rachel Hartman

Updated: Mar 25

Rachel Hartman's young adult story follows irresistible, hardheaded, wonderfully faulted Tess as she breaks from rigid medieval gender roles in favor of adventure and discovery. It's captivating, sometimes weighty, and often playful, but never silly.

She felt like she was seeing with two different eyes: an eye full of stars that still saw the romance, and a new eye, one she'd acquired while walking, an eye full of...

It was full of fire, she decided. Her second eye saw the flesh of this story burned away, held the bones up to her own story, and saw the injustice.

In Hartman's Tess of the Road, Tess doesn't fit the mold of an obedient, quiet young woman in her medieval kingdom of Goredd, where men rule the land and each household within it.

Without airing out all of the family's dirty laundry, let's just say that this time Tess has really taken things too far for fine society, and she's not a young lady who can be subdued. So Tess's family decides to send her to a nunnery. But Tess has other plans.

On the day she's scheduled to report for the beginning of her cloistered life, she cuts her hair, pulls on walking boots, and runs away, determined to craft a life for herself outside of the narrow parameters set upon her. Tess's long-held ability to get into trouble leads her on an adventure of a lifetime.

Tess is irresistibly faulted and headstrong; she is full of wonder and desperate for adventure; she is pushing at the edge of the disappointingly limited possibilities for young women; and she finds herself increasingly frustrated, then furious, about the double standards, injustices, and power inequality between men and women.

There are various complex serpent- and dragon-like creatures within the story, and the longtime, unorthodox friendship between Tess and a dragon-adjacent creature (called a quigutl) helps root the story. Yet the heart of this book is based upon timeless issues, a search for justice, and pushing traditional boundaries.

There's a "woman dresses as a man to escape gender limitations" trope; the story emphasizes loyalty, duty, and bravery; and there's some dabbling in faith issues as well as feelings of disillusionment related to certain religious conventions. Tess experiences unexpected, touching, and never-cheesy romance. We witness some of Tess's sobering realizations about the dark truths in the world--as well as her sometimes overly simplified, bull-headed, endearing insistence on interjecting herself to try to help others...or advance her own interests.

Hartman's 521-page story is immensely satisfying. Tess of the Road is playful yet never silly. The story zigzags in an appealing way through phases of Tess's young explorations. The tale is full of captivating discoveries of all kinds while also addressing deep issues about gender, power, and possibility. It addresses female empowerment within the frustrating constraints of the time, laying out some hopeful, plausible baby steps toward progress. I'm excited to read the sequel.

Do you have any Bossy thoughts about this book?

Rachel Hartman is also the author of the Seraphina series.

The second book in the Tess of the Road series, In the Serpent's Wake, was published last month. I can't wait to read this one!