Cards on the table: I love Rachel Hartman’s Goredd universe. I remember first picking up Seraphina on a whim back in late 2012 and was swept away by Hartman’s elegant prose and richly-imagined world. From the creative way in which Hartman introduced and created her dragons within the human society to the way in which she introduced and integrated Goredd’s religion and its various Saints, as well as all the way to the characters.
After all, a rich world is nothing without characters to fill it, especially characters in whom I am deeply invested. I loved Seraphina and all the other characters that circled around her, whether it be her dragon uncle, the prince, her close friend — it didn’t matter, I was invested. They were without doubt one of the strongest elements of the novel, not only due to their complexity, but in just how much I cared for them; I wanted nothing but happiness for them. It made Shadow Scale one of my most anticipated reads of 2015, and getting access to the ARC of that novel was enough to get to cancel any and all plans I had and hunker down to read the entire novel in one sitting.
So getting the chance to return to Goredd, and from a different perspective…yeah, it didn’t take much to convince me I needed to read this book.
The first thing that struck me while reading Tess of the Road is how I had completely forgotten about Seraphina’s family. I had vaguely remembered her father, but — and I’m ashamed to admit it — her stepmother, stepsisters, and stepbrothers had entirely slipped my mind. I didn’t remember them at all. Needless to say, it took me a moment to realize that Tess was, in fact, one of Seraphina’s younger stepsisters.
And, unfortunately, Tess is no Seraphina. I feel it’s unfair to say as, of course, there’s no way that Tess could be Seraphina — to start with, she’s not half-dragon — and so to compare these two protagonists is an exercise in futility. They are incredibly different from each other, which is put into even sharper relief when Seraphina herself actually shows up, more than once to my great delight. The problem with Tess is not necessarily that she’s unlikeable, but that, for me, she’s grating. At first, I couldn’t grasp how Hartman could have written a character like Tess, one who was such a drag to follow and who did nothing to either endear me to her or invest me in her journey. Of course, the entire point of Tess of the Road is that it’s more a journey of inner self-discovery and healing more than any sort of plot, so starting with Tess as she is, it’s worth it to follow her journey. I still never quite warmed to her, but I most certainly softened towards her, especially by the end when she had come to terms with herself.
Also, I just had to add: wow, I really loathed Tess’s mother (Seraphina’s stepmother). I really, truly dislike that woman.
But moving on to the plot…there isn’t much of one. That’s not necessarily to the novel’s detriment as it makes it fairly clear that this is more an inner journey of self-discovery for Tess than it is a true road-trip novel of adventures — there is a road trip, and there are adventures, but they’re not necessarily the novel’s true focus. While that certainly does drag the pacing of what I had hoped would be a faster, more “fun” novel, part of me was willing to continue powering through some of the many points where I considered pausing my reading. Of course, I know that if I pause a Goredd book and then attempt to go back to it, it’ll be a struggle, and so, rather like Tess on her Road — capitalized by our heroine herself — I continued walking on.
Ultimately, this book lacked, for me, some of the magic of what made the original Seraphina duology so wonderful and borderline mind-blowing; there was a spark that just wasn’t present, and it made Tess of the Road a far more difficult reading experience than either of its predecessors. That being said, I still think that Tess of the Road is a phenomenal story of self-discovery and learning to live with, as well as love and forgive, oneself. The raw, personal journey of Tess is one that may not always endear the reader to her, but will certainly strike home and true with more than one person.
It just takes a bit of effort to get to that point.