While I was initially not as in love with Tess of the Road I am glad I pushed through that wall to finish the book. (And I’d encourage you to as well!) Tess was such an unconventional heroine that I absolutely adored. Tess of the Road is incredibly timely, having important conversations about women who defy conventions and consent.
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.
Where Tess is headed is a mystery, even to her. So when she runs into an old friend, it’s a stroke of luck. This friend is a quigutl–a subspecies of dragon–who gives her both a purpose and protection on the road. But Tess is guarding a troubling secret. Her tumultuous past is a heavy burden to carry, and the memories she’s tried to forget threaten to expose her to the world in more ways than one.
So I have never read Seraphina, so I knew absolutely nothing about the world and even who Seraphine is. Do I want to now? Yes.
Now that we’ve gotten that elephant out of the room, while I enjoyed Tess’ character, around 25% I was considering DNF’ng the book (did not finish). Why? The plot takes its time and it is unclear for a bit where the story will go. While I enjoyed Tess’ character, it just felt like she wasn’t going anywhere and we weren’t finding out that much.
I am so glad I kept reading. Not only did Tess of the Road have important conversations about women who defy expectations, but also about consent (which was my personal favorite). Tess is curious, determined, and unlike any other heroine I’ve read. She drinks a lot, is self-destructive, and can push people away. Underneath all of this is a truly tender soul which has been told her whole life that she wasn’t pious enough, good enough, enough at all. Most importantly, while the book goes slowly, it only makes sense.
Tess doesn’t know who she is away from her expectations, her family. She doesn’t know where she’s going, this isn’t some large quest for her. More or less experiences shape her journey, but they uncover these vulnerabilities, these weak spots. I’ve been thinking about what makes a hero. Is it something we find that has always been there? Is it something you can cultivate? I don’t have any answers for you, but this book is a great place to start. Tess, I’ll shelter you under my wings.
(I also liked the relationships of the Quigutl and their relationship with Tess. This was a fantastic world building detail).
And without spoiling the plot, I wanted to touch upon the themes this book brings up. I’ve already mentioned the idea of Tess not bending to any of the expectations we have: ‘innocent’, ‘well behaved’, ‘good’. (That isn’t to say that Tess is disobedient and evil, I’m just referring to the society’s definitions). Women can never win. It isn’t that Tess is evil, but her behavior doesn’t fit neatly into the mold of ‘good’.
Additionally, Tess has this conversation with a friend about consent that is ABSOLUTELY relevant in a way that is both sad, but also refreshing to see. It made me tear up because it was so similar to my own experiences. It’s about those experiences that went against the core of you, those lines people crossed without your permission, the ways you numbed yourself afterwards, and the blame you heaped onto yourself every day. Tess of the Road opens up the space for us to have these conversations, to realize you aren’t alone.
This is a story about forgiveness, about trying to make peace with your mistakes and the ones you will make. It’s about knowing that we don’t have to fit into the molds, we don’t have to hold onto our secrets, we don’t have to be an island. We can let our secrets hang in the wind, we can break the parameters, and we can embrace the people who remain by our side. It’s hard to be alone, but we don’t have to be. It may move slowly, it may feel a little windy, but that’s life. Tess doesn’t set out to be a hero, she just can’t stay and on the way she has numerous adventures and learns to embrace herself.
You can pick up Tess of the Road on Goodreads.