New York: Random House, 2018 (521 pages)
This story builds on Hartman’s Seraphina series. Tess’s story is told jumping between her present and past. Here, I relate the events in chronological order. Tess is Seraphina’s half sister, and has lived in the shadow of Seraphina’s story most of her life. When Seraphina’s scales came in, the truth that their father’s first wife was a dragon came out, which strained the relationship between Tess’s mother and their father. To add to the burden, Tess and her beautiful and dutiful twin Jeanne share the responsibility of marrying well, to devout men, since their father’s business is poor. At the root of all of the unhappiness is a mother with too many of her own disappointments, who pushes this onto anyone within range. Unfortunately, Tess and Jeanne are the closest, and being female in a male-dominated world means that they must conform to high standards. These include standards for ladies who wish to be wives for the lower aristocracy (or at least attendants to high-born ladies), and standards for devout Samsamese, which mean lots of religious rules against every kind of vice (including womanhood). All of this is too much for Tess, so when she rebels, she seems to do so with an appetite for her own destruction. Even when they were very young, she and Jeanne were, by dint of being female, given womenly responsibilites that chafed, but Tess was the spankworthy twin, always looking for adventures like those of her favorite fictional pirate Dozerius. And thanks to her best friend, a quigutl named Pathka, she got into even more sticky situations and adventures. When she saved Pathka from dying as she delivered the final of her first clutch of eggs, Tess gained a friend for life (even though Pathka resented the presence of her unwanted hatchling, Kikiu). As a young woman, Tess’s rebelliousness took another turn for the worse when she began contriving to attend lectures and hang out with students, particularly the irreverent, irrepresible Will of Affle. Tess shares Pathka’s story of the world serpents with Will, which results first in attraction, then in an unforeseen physical relationship resulting in a pregnancy. But even before Tess understands what has happened, Will disappears. Tess is sent, in disgrace, to have her baby at her uncle’s home, but the baby is born three months early and dies at three days old. When Tess returns to her family, she carries these new burdens with the rest, and the load is too much. She loses herself in drink, but helps Jeanne to marriage with a weathly and devout nobleman. Unfortunately, Tess’s badness rears its head again when the soon-to-be inlaws discover Tess’s past, and the stain spreads to Jeanne. Tess and her future brother-in-law, Jacomo, must sit behind a screen in the newlyweds room as witnesses to the state of Jeanne’s virginity. Jacomo can’t keep from riling the drunken Tess, who punches him in the nose and ruins her sister’s wedding night. As a result, Tess is given two options: join a nunnery, or stay with Jeanne as a companion. Seraphina steps in with a third option: join the Countess Margarethe on a scientific excursion to study megafauna in the antarctic. Tess is too wrapped up in her own misery and too bullheaded to rely on her half-sister’s charity, so she decides on option four: run away. Thus begins a gradual healing process for Tess, one that begins when she no longer has access to drink and must fend for herself. Thankfully, she is joined early on by her old friend Pathka, and together they determine to locate the world serpent, Anathuthia, for themselves. (It helps that Pathka has been called to this mission in a dream, and has followed the traces and summoned Anathuthia by sacrificing his blood, opening himself up to further dreaming.) Throughout their journey, Tess and Pathka are forced to face some difficult truths about the choices they’ve made, and the choices that have been made for them. Tess, even as she perceives herself as the worst reprobate, conducts herself with kindness to others. Pathka is forced to recognize that he (quigutl’s can change sex over the course of their lives) was a poor mother. The longer they are away, and the farther they go, the voices that tell Tess she’s worthless die down. Tess strips herself of her female identity in order to travel more freely, becoming, by turns, the dashing thief Jacomo, a seminarian who doubts his vocation, and Tes’puco (dunderhead) who joins a road crew that to fill a seemingly endless sinkhole that opened up with the recent earthquakes. Pathka finally discovers Anathuthia, buried deep below a Ninysh monastery. Pathka’s summons have roused the world serpent, and her movement causes the earthquake that sucks down the monastery library into yet another sinkhole. Tess (as Jacomo, the seminarian) and a troubled monk, Frai Moldi, descend to an awesome sight: Anathuthia, whose coils emit a blue glow, has laid an egg. The sight has stricken the both of them to the core; it is an epiphany that leads Frai Moldi to help his monastery and Tess to want to share the news as far as she can. She makes her way to Segosh, where she intends to blow away the members of the Ninysh Acadamy with her discover. In looking for a place to stay, she meets Mother Gaida, who hires Tess to take care of her incapacitated son, Josquin. This Josquin is the same herald who helped Seraphina, but who was disabled in an accident. In caring for Josquin, Tess makes an unexpected discovery: she is terribly attracted to Josquin. With his help, Tess (as Tes’puco) shares the discovery of Anathuthia with the scholars in Segosh. Unfortunately, one of the scholars is jealous of Tes’puco and outs him as a female, thereby putting all of Tess’s findings in doubt. Worse, the scholars lead an expedition that kills Anathuthia for the sake of studying her body and nature. When they do this, Pathka almost dies when his connection to Anathuthia is severed. At least he hid Anathuthia’s egg! Little do the scholars they realize the damage they’ve caused. By killing the world serpents, what will become of the world? Now that everyone knows the world serpents exist, there is a mad rush to discover the rest. The dragons, who have always seemed to want to supress knowledge about the giant snakes, have chartered a ship for the purpose of finding the Antarctic serpent. Seraphina comes to Tess’s rescue a final time to make her accept a place on the Countess Margarethe’s ship, bound for the same goal by order of the Queen of Goredd. No more world serpents should be slaughtered. Tess must leave Josquin, but finds an unexpected friend in the real Jacomo, the brother-in-law she left with a broken nose. He’s followed her trail to Sagosh, and has made some discoveries of his own. Pathka, after regaining his health (saved once more by Tess), and Kikiu, finally united with her mother/father, join Jacomo and Tess on the next leg of the adventure. Tess of the road will become Tess of the sea.
Tags: identity, gender stereotypes, friendship, discovery, light romance, self-discovery, fantasy, magic, relationships