Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Tess of the Road (Tess of the Road #1) (Southlands #3), by Rachel Hartman

Random House Books for Young Readers, ISBN 9781101931288, February 2018

This is a frustrating book.

We first meet the titular Tess as a little girl full of energy and imagination, and a challenge to her joy-killing mother. Then we quickly jump ahead playing maid and "younger sister" to Jeanne, who is her younger twin and now a maid of honor at the royal court. In the intervening years, we gradually learn, Tess managed to ruin herself, give birth to a bastard whose existence was concealed by sending Tess to stay with her grandmother, and demonstrate a complete inability to be sufficiently meek and rule-following to have much chance anyway at the kind of husband the family needs to repair its fortunes. Those fortunes were destroyed when the truth came out about their father's first marriage--his first wife was a dragon, and his oldest daughter, Seraphina, is a dragon. He lost his licence to practice law. They can't afford for Tess's disgrace to come out, too.

Tess at this point in her life is unhappy and resentful, though Jeanne may be the only member of her family she loves. Not soon enough, we jump ahead to Tess running away, which, unexpectedly, is the start of her doing things that aren't willfully stupid and self-destructive.

Not that a sixteen-year-old girl running away, with no skills to support herself except as a seamstress, in a fairly sexist medieval culture, is exactly clever. Yet Tess does have a good brain, and away from the stifling influence of her family, she starts, very slowly, to use it.

She also meets up with a childhood friend, a quigutl named Pathka. Quigutls are lizards, somewhat similar to dragons, though they don't fly, and they and the dragons don't like each other. Pathka has his own problems, but he does care about Tess, and Tess about him, and they both start, a little bit, to think about people outside themselves. And while Tess continues to hear her mother's voice inside her head telling her how very bad she is, and how she's responsible for pretty much every bad thing that happens around her, once she starts looking around, she stars trying to do what good she can, wherever she passes. The more she practices, the better she gets at it, and often, when she's looking at other people's problems rather than her own, her ideas are pretty smart.

It's really too bad that we keep getting flashbacks to Tess's earlier experiences, when she was follish and bitter and did willfully self-destructive things.

I really, really like the person Tess develops into. She has great adventures, and we see an interesting world. The book is well-written.

But it takes too long for Tess to start being more interesting, and we then get dragged back to her earlier experiences and behavior too often and for too long. On balance, this is not a book that will encourage me to read more in this fictional world.

Very much a mixed bag.

I received this book as part of the 2019 Hugo Voters Packet.

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