Tess has always been the “bad” twin, in her angelic sister’s shadow, tormented by her mother and younger brothers. Her family is completely miserable: parents estranged and impoverished, half-sister who is also a half-dragon, and Tess herself, “ruined” at the age of thirteen. Tess sees no way out, and after almost ruining her sister’s wedding and her family’s attempt to escape destitution, she sets off to wander the world on her own.
For those who have read Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina series, this is set in the same world. Tess is Seraphina’s half-sister, a minor character in the original two books. Some of the characters from the first series are players in this one, but it’s mostly a separate story in the same world. That, of course, means more world-building, and in this case it’s particularly about the quigutl species (a lizardish species that isn’t human or dragon) and their mythology/theology. Beyond that, this is the story of a traveler coming to terms with various traumas of her childhood and adolescence, learning about herself and the world, and coming to find a name for herself that isn’t thrust on her by others.
This is the second book in a row that has been a mixed read for me. On the plus side, I enjoyed learning about the quigutl. I said recently that my favorite thing about fantasy is the ability to play with real-world themes in a different-world setting. The quigutl hop genders multiple times in their lives, so that for instance a mother might be male but always a mother to her own hatchlings. I liked the exploration of gender-fluidity. Also, the quigutl have a very non-human way of seeing the world, particularly evident in their language, which include things like a contradictory case for modifying nouns and non-gendered pronouns. Outside the quigutl, I also enjoyed watching Tess’s progress over the road as she learned to overcome her past and embrace her true self.
On the negative side, I felt like the book was not much more than a series of adventures, with less of a narrative arc than I would have liked. It never felt as if the book reached a climax, but instead stayed in a solid, steady line all the way through. I also didn’t particularly like Tess as a character. That last one is entirely personal. Tess is the sort of person I wouldn’t like in the real world either – we’d probably get on each other’s last nerves! And of course, that made the book more difficult to engage with.
I kept reading despite being less engaged because I have enjoyed Hartman’s world in the past, and because the quigutl were so interesting, and because the audio narrator (Katherine McEwan) did an excellent job keeping me going. I plan to read the next book in the series as well, whenever it arrives, but honestly I’m not sure if any of these books will ever quite live up to the pleasure that was the original Seraphina.
Trigger warning: This book discusses sexual assault in multiple situations and goes into the complexities involved in the psychology around said assault.