One of the best books I read last year was Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman. It’s a kind of meandering fantasy story about a girl who is rejected by her family and so she walks through the country. It’s episodic and understated, and a year later it still takes my breath away sometimes when I think about it. I’m quietly heartbroken that it didn’t win the Nebula’s Andre Norton award for YA SF/F.
Tess is given more room to be flawed and interesting and angry and complicated than I feel like many protagonists in young adult literature are. She’s given room to breathe and evolve as she walks the road and accrues new experiences. I think I actually cried a couple times near the end of this book.
One of the best things about this book is that the people in the world around Tess feel as real and fleshed out as she is. Character driven fantasy can sometimes fall into the trap of evolving the main character in a navel-gazey way that flattens the people around that main character. But there is a real sense that the world around Tess would move without her, and that people have their own complicated interests and motivations that are not just there to benefit the protagonist.
Tess of the Road is technically a sequel to the Seraphina Duology also by Rachel Hartman, but it’s not necessary to read that before jumping in here. Seraphina is on my list, but I still haven’t gotten around to it. Rachel Hartman is also working on a sequel called Tess of the Sea. I’m excited for when it comes out, but also a little puzzled as to where it could go. This snapshot of Tess’s emotional journey feels so complete.
I certainly plan on rereading Tess of the Road before the sequel comes out, and maybe a couple more times before that. This book is meditative and heartfelt; I could not recommend it more.