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)