Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman

I am finding it hard to know exactly where to start this post, because I don’t know where to start with this book. So, okay: I read Tess of the Road because I loved Seraphina, and because I kept hearing people talk about how amazing Tess was. At first the story felt slow; I felt almost impatient with Tess and her hurt and anger, a bit confused about what all the people who loved this book saw in it. But as Tess kept walking, I kept reading. Something pulled me forward. And as Tess’s journey progressed, I absolutely fell in love with the book and with her. I’m not sure I’ve done at all a good job of conveying how much I loved this book and how much it means to me, even now remembering reading it. But it’s always harder to write about the books that you truly love, that work themselves into your heart.

For one thing, the writing itself is a delight. There are riffs on madrigals, sly allusions to the Psalms, Tolkien, and probably some others that I’ve now forgotten. While the descriptions of the landscape that Tess walks through never overtake the main narrative in importance, there are moments of real loveliness. Like this one: “The sun began to rise in earnest; Tess loved the way it illuminated treetops first, turning the foliage white-gold. The sky behind was warmly blue, and in the west a gibbous moon lingered in the branches like a pale fish caught in a net.” There’s a wit and warmth even in the narration that’s hard to put into words but which helps to make the story what it is.

I was also charmed and disarmed to realize how much of the book is about philosophy. I can’t think of another historical fantasy off the bat that shows the medieval/renaissance conflict of philosophies so clearly and considering how much time people of those eras spent arguing about Ideas, this seems wrong. There’s a whole section where Tess argues with a nun, Mother Philomela, about attitudes towards the body. It’s important from a character building perspective, but it’s also there because our underlying beliefs do influence our personal journeys, our attitudes towards others and ourselves. I love it.

(There are sort of vague emotional spoilers in the rest of this review; not specific plot points but some of the emotional payoff. If you would like to avoid them, stop reading now!)

At the beginning of the book, Tess is locked in a self-destructive and bitter cycle, fueled by her past and her mother’s dislike of her. The catalyst that gets her out of her parents’ house and onto the Road forces her into self-examination whether she likes it or not. Ultimately, this story is one of growth, of healing. It doesn’t take place instantly, nor does it feel finished at the end. And yet, the Tess at the end of the book is so much more herself than the Tess at the beginning. We see her unshrivel herself as she walks.

This is also a book about kindness, but not a passive “be nice” sort of kindness. One of the key things that keeps resonating in ways spoken and unspoken is that kindness is “hard to manage if you were filled with the brim to bitterness.” It’s not enough to be a Nice Person, or to be reflexively polite. Neither is it enough to make yourself smaller to make others feel better. What Tess of the Road posits is an active kindness, acts of kindness that come not because you’re doing it deliberately in order to be kind but almost exactly because you’re not. Because each small choice to reach out, to uncurl yourself a little bit from your own pain and see someone else is real and vital and echoes through the world.

At the same time, there is no simple happy ending. There is healing and courage and kindness and all kinds of lovely, vital things. But there are some wounds that aren’t fixed on the pages of this book; they may be some day, but for now they remain. It’s not that everything is fine now, but that Tess has the tools and the inner strength to deal with them. In that sense the ending reminded me a bit of the ending of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Mercy (also a story about healing and identity and companionship): “There is always more after the ending. Always the next morning, and the next. Always changes, losses and gains. Always one step after the other.”

This tension isn’t accidental, since the book contains at its heart this quigutl idea of -utl, a suffix containing the thing and its opposite. A life lived in joy-utl, which is to say joyful sorrow, or sorrowful joy. (Which are, as it happens, EXTREMELY Orthodox ideas.) No false promises of happily ever after here, but the next part of the journey and the next bit of the Road.

 

Other reviews of Tess of the Road:
Amal El-Mohtar for NPR (honestly, read this one; she says basically everything that I wanted to)
The Book Smugglers
Caitlin Kelly at Hypable

My review of Seraphina (2012)

Previously on By Singing Light:
Star’s End by Cassandra Rose Clarke (2017)
Elizabeth Wein Reading Notes: A Coalition of Lions (2016)
Diana Wynne Jones Reading Notes: Hexwood (2015)
The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (2014)
Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein (2013)
 

 

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Links: 6-14-18

I know I just published a links post, but I’ve come across a couple of things I’d like to share.

First, an eyewitness description of the conditions in one of the shelters where young children are being housed after being forcibly taken away from their parents. This entire process is so cruel, so devoid of compassion or humanity, that it makes a complete mockery of any claim America has to moral authority.

It’s hard to shift gears from that, but I really appreciated this personal essay about being married and being yourself.

This upcoming book sounds like it could be pretty cool!

I did not know there was a Victorian-era London railway station specifically for coffins and mourners! How cool and bizarre.

You know that Stanford Prison Experiment that always gets trotted out? Turns out the truth is considerably more complicated. (This related Twitter thread is also a good perspective.)

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Currently reading: 6-13-18


I am actually only actively reading one book at the moment! Claire LeGrand’s latest release, Furyborn. I am sure it’s being marketed as a feminist epic fantasy (ah, yes: “The stunningly original, must-read fantasy of 2018 follows two fiercely independent young women”) and I’m interested in that and how successfully the book fulfills that promise. I’m on page 283 of 494 and I keep waiting for a twist or a moment to coalesce the story and bring the two parts together. I suspect it’s coming soon? Anyway, it’s an interesting take on an YA epic fantasy, although I’m not sure I’m buying “stunningly original”–certainly the world is inventive and fascinating, but I pretty much always prefer a take on books that situates them within their historical context.

I think I’m making it sound like I don’t like Furyborn, which is not true at all! In fact, it’s probably my second-favorite fantasy read of 2018 to date (after Tess of the Road). I’m just always interested in how we market things and how that can strip books of history and context. Bringing me back to Joanna Russ, I suppose, and How to Suppress Women’s Writing--how do we forget the writers who came before, and what does that cost us? Anyway, it’s a thoughtful book, sometimes unexpectedly fun, and a surprisingly quick read despite its heft.

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Links: 6/9/2018

Just a few things I’ve found interesting recently. They are mostly depressing. Please enjoy this photo of my cat looking winsome while sitting at the dinner table.

Wimsey is also a fan of carnitas.

A post shared by Maureen E L (@elvenjaneite) on

This essay about Auburn softball is thoughtfully written in clear and cutting prose, but I kept feeling haunted by the question of how a female reporter might have written it, given the same access and background. How many times can you not see something right in front of you before you become part of the problem? [cw: abuse]

How we teach aspiring illustrators is part of the problem when it comes to the gender gap in kidlit award winners.

I’ve still only seen like half a season of The Americans, but I really liked this essay about translating the Russian dialogue and the specific language choices made. [spoilers for the finale]

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Favorite Tor.com Novellas

In the past few years, Tor.com’s novella line has really grown and strengthened. Here are a few of the offerings I especially enjoyed.

The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander: This one is really stunning; it’s all about history and alternate history and the stories we tell. The prose is beautiful and the story is powerful. There are a few threads interwoven and each of them is treated seriously and given its own significance.

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson: I’ve had a very strong reaction to some of Johnson’s other short fiction, but I really enjoyed this one. Centered on an older woman, whose academic background reminded me a bit of Harriet Vane in Gaudy Night, this also features some interesting cats and lovely descriptions.

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire: A brutal, thoughtful take on portal fantasies and what happens afterwards. It’s probably my favorite writing from McGuire and I recommend it if you are interested in both stories and subversions of the stories.

Binti, Binti: Home, and Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor: Oh, the Binti trilogy! I love the writing in these books so much, the emphasis on diplomacy, on peacemaking. The scifi elements combined with a deep sense of history and culture and customs. Binti herself and her growth of over the course of the three novellas. There’s something really magical about these ones.

All Systems Red & Artificial Condition by Martha Wells: MURDERBOT. I love Murderbot so much, which sounds sketchy if you haven’t read these lovely space operas yet. But Murderbot is a disenchanted securitybot who just wants to protect humans and hacked its own governor module so it can watch entertainment feeds and doesn’t want to feel anything and I LOVE IT. The second novella is just as good as the first and I can’t wait for the next few. (PS, if you know Wells through the Murderbot novellas, please check out some of her other books; they are also excellent.

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Becca Fair and Foul by Deirdre Baker

It’s always fun to come across a book that makes you wonder if the author took a look in one of your old diaries. Becca Fair and Foul by Deirdre Baker is one of those books. I picked it up from our new book shelf at work, attracted by the cover, and was hooked by the first page. It seems that there’s a first book, Becca at Sea, which I haven’t read.

At any rate, this book takes place over one summer on an island in Canada (I believe near Vancouver? I was a bit muzzy as to geography), where Becca and her cousins have come to stay with their grandmother. Her friend Jane is there too, and she and Jane decide to put on a Shakespeare play (with the unwilling help of cousins) to raise money to buy a better sailboat than the one they currently have access to.

As a kid, this would have been absolutely catnip to me. I loved sailing and boats, and my siblings and I often spent part of the summer at our grandparents’ house by the sea, with our cousin. (Not, alas, on an island.) I read just about every nautical-themed book I could get my hands on and, though my exposure to Shakespeare was probably limited to Lamb’s Tales From, I would have sympathized deeply with the desire to put on a play.

As an adult reader, all the old nostalgic love for those things is there. But I also admire the way that Baker takes what on the surface is a rather adventurey story and makes it a vehicle for exploring Becca’s very late elementary/early middle school experience of life. This is the summer when she notices and is hurt by the death of the animals around her, even though it’s a natural part of life. The summer when her aunts are hurting and there’s nothing anyone can do to truly fix it. It’s not a morbid or a sad book, but it does go a lot deeper than the initial premise suggests, allowing the lovely descriptions of the island and funny moments with the other inhabitants to exist alongside Aunt Meg’s pain over her stillbirth and the burial of the bear.

While I do admire the depth that the story reaches, and the handling of the various sadder moments in a way that felt just right for a sensitive tween reader, I do want to mention that the story at the same time feels limited. Everyone is white, and one of Becca’s aunts is a doctor with an AIDs center in Africa. Ultimately, Jane and Becca decide to give the proceeds of their play to this aunt, for her research and to help save the grandmothers and children there. In that sense it feels like a very old-fashioned book, and not in a good way. I really wished that this storyline had at least been counterbalanced with the presence of some people of color on the island or in the main story itself, or with someone more mature than the kids providing some pushback to the white saviorism there.

So, ultimately this is one that I personally really enjoyed both on a nostalgic level and  as an adult reader–there are some really funny scenes, some really heartbreaking ones, and a keen description of both the nature world and Becca’s growing awareness of life. But I also had some reservations about it, so I’m not entirely sure who I’d recommend this book to. All the same, if you also love anything set by the sea, or quiet books about growing up, this might be a great fit.

Other reviews of Becca Fair and Foul:
Kirkus 
Kristin Butcher
A Year in Books

Previously on By Singing Light:
The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar (2017)
Roses and Rot by Kat Howard (2016)
Diana Wynne Jones reading notes: Howl’s Moving Castle (2015)
The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson (2014)

 

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May 2018 books

This was a light reading month for me, mostly because we were moving! (Therefore, also a light posting month here.) 

Ms. Marvel: Damage Per Second G. Willow Wilson 5.25

Goldie Vance vol. 3 Hope Larson 5.25

Becca Fair and Foul Deirdre Baker 5.25

The Only Harmless Great Thing B. Bolander 5.13

Sunny Jason Reynolds 5.13

Artificial Condition (Murderbot 2) Martha Wells 5.12

Mighty Jack Ben Hatke 5.6

A Traveller in Time Alison Uttley 5.5

The Boxcar Children Gertrude Chandler Warner (reread) 5.4

 

Total books read: 9
Total rereads: 1 (The Boxcar Children, which was for work)

Favorites:

  • Sunny
  • Becca Fair and Foul
  • Artificial Condition
  • The Only Harmless Great Thing
  • Goldie Vance
  • Ms. Marvel

(Okay, yes that’s basically all of them; I REGRET NOTHING.)

 

 

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