I remember wholeheartedly loving the Seraphina books when I read them around seven-ish and five-ish years ago. I'm pleasantly surprised with how easy it was to slip back into this world without any real confusion, a testament to Rachel Hartman's worldbuilding skills. Tess of the Road, whilst it's a companion series will greatly benefit from having been read after the Seraphina books. A lot of characters reappear within this new series and there are references to the conclusion of the previous books.
This will be spoiler filled because I need to discuss a few things. So, spoilers ahead and also a few trigger warnings.
TW: Sexual assault, rape, death of a newborn, abuse, religion.
Whilst I really enjoyed this story I can see how 'problematic' it is. The world is deeply religious, which is fine, I love reading about religion despite not being religious myself. This particular religion was based around the concept of Patron Saints, essentially a pantheon of godlike figures, which I remember very well from Seraphina and Shadowscale and found it very interesting and engaging. It's brilliantly constructed and each Saint has their own epithets that tend to get quoted and sprinkled throughout the books. This is where my issues began as it is also a DEEPLY misogynistic society that states women are fit only to be virgins and then mothers, nothing in between. Having any form of sexuality beyond the duty of procreation as a wife is seen as a sin, particularly in the eyes of one Saint, St. Vitt whom Tess' mother repeatedly quotes. I'm talking don't look a man in the eye or you're inviting him to take advantage style epithets. Which again, would be fine if it was fought against and/or criticised but it never really was. There instead was a begrudging acceptance in all but one scene. YIKES. I get it, that's the setting but surely there must be some kind of comment upon how it isn't right.
We learn a lot about Tess' history over her time on the road as she speaks to others. We find out she'd had a child out of wedlock, the cause of much scandal within her family and so they place her in disgrace whilst trying to keep her 'secret'. Her younger twin is presented at court as the 'older sister' and thus married off first, who coincidently is the epitome of innocence and perfection in terms of which this society deems as such. What again, fed into my YIKES, was the fact that no one asked the thirteen-year-old Tess how she came to be pregnant. THIRTEEN. Turns out she was sexually assaulted by an older man whom she thought she was safe with as he was a friend of her uncle (who was about twentyish and more like a cousin), he seemed to uphold the same morals as her family and she thought she was falling for him. We don't know any of this until nearly the very end of the book. The worst part is when Tess is confronted with the truth that she was raped, whom a very lovely man brought up and explicitly stated it wasn't her fault, she still believes that it was her own fault for getting close to him despite the fact she said early in their friendship/blossoming relationship 'No I don't want to do that'. After suffering eight months of feeling humiliated at Will's (the friend of the uncle) hands she ends up pregnant, he leaves, and Tess is left to deal with pregnancy alone. She's shipped off to give birth at a secluded location, the child dies a few days into its life. Her mother's only comment was to the effect of, well I'd hoped you'd miscarry but this is better than bringing home a bastard. Never is this called out for being utterly horrendous. Just brushed over. I fully understand that this is the time this novel is set in but it doesn't make it any easier to read. There's more I could say but I'll leave it at that.
Despite the problems I had in regard to how such sensitive subject matter was handled I still enjoyed the story. The story was four stars, the sensitive materials handling was a two, so overall that's why it's a three for me.
I felt the plot moved with great pace. Yes, there's not a lot of action but that isn't who Tess is, it wasn't who Seraphina was in the first series. This is a hugely character-driven story but the way this book was left I feel that the next books will perhaps have a little more far-flung adventure. What I truly loved was Tess developed as a person I wholly disliked her, to begin with, I found her whiny, abrasive and unnecessarily cruel at times. Whilst I appreciated that she had been through something, as at that point the full extent of what she went through (trauma with a capital T) isn't explained. That's slowly revealed of the course of the book. By the end of the book, I adored her character and loved how she'd blossomed into her own person. She didn't necessarily completely overcome the internalised misogyny but began to and also matured in other ways.
My favourite thing about the book was how Tess took a little bit of each person she met along the road. Every single character she met from Griss to Gen. They help on her journey whether they mean to or not. Then hearing the tales retold at the end by Jacomo who had followed Tess intending to bring her home in disgrace...ended up admiring her and joining her on her journey.
Then Pathka. I love the Quitgutls. Their customs and myths are so well defined and created. I found that one of the most compelling parts of the story! And I found a lot of it compelling.
Whilst there are certain things I wish had been addressed in this book I still really enjoyed the story.
I do plan on continuing this series because now I feel invested.
Name: Tess of the Road
Author: Rachel Hartman
Publisher: Random House
Have you read Tess of the Road?
What did you think?
Thank you for reading,