[Cam’s Bookish Tales] LET’S TALK ABUSE AND RAPE IN YA FANTASY ft. Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman

What started out as a review for Tess of the Road turned into a personal and very intimate post about abuse, its effects, and suicide. I wanted to trash this post because I was initially embarrassed to be open about it. My aim for this blog is to create a safe space for my readers but after some contemplation, I realize that if I want to give readers that safe space I have to be willing to create difficult conversations in the hopes of  building an awareness among my following. 

This, by the way, is not a review for Rachel Hartman’s Tess of the Road but more of an appreciation for the issues the author dealt with in this book. 

This blog post contains spoilers for Tess of the Road!! My review for the book can be found here.


Domestic abuse in Tess’ case comes from her mother’s religious beliefs  regarding Tess’ unbridled wildness, and the fact that Tess is a troublemaker. The mother’s anger for Tess’ father out-pours onto the child. So we’ve got this home situation of a raging mother and a negligent father. Then we have Tess’ sour relationship with Will who raped and mentally abused Tess. 

The after-effects of abuse is insidious in this book. It’s one I don’t come across much in my reading of fantasy books. There’s the anger, the vices, or the deep sadness, which are all very serious consequences of abuse on their own but in Tess’ case, there’s not only these but also the quiet contemplation for suicide. 

When I read fantasy books, rape is portrayed in a violent manner or through lewd remarks. We don’t get many books that address rape within a relationship or if they do, for the few I’ve read, these issues are used as a woman’s background sob-story to make her more of the “damsel in distress.”

Having this portrayed in a YA Fantasy book means so much to me. So I thought I’d take apart a few of Tess’ experience and address each of the paragraphs as best as I can.  Please remember, that you can stop right now if this will be triggering. The next quotes are a step through Tess’ mindset during the rape and after.

My intention is this might help readers who may not understand that sexual assault doesn’t always involve a stranger and ripped clothes, it doesn’t always come with bruises. Further, this may perhaps also be of some helpful to writers.

THE CONTEXT OF RAPE IN TESS OF THE ROAD

“I wasn’t mad at him – isn’t that ridiculous? He was just doing what my mother had warned me men do. If anything, I was mad at her, and at my maidenhead. I thought I’d have some warning, that there’d be time to stop him. I didn’t know anything.”

Guilt wrecked me after my own assault. There is always this feeling of ‘I could have done better’ or ‘I could have avoided it’. Reason after reason are squashed like grapes between our fingers as we replay the assault in our minds. Looking, we mistake the red for our own blood, and our hands for the rapist. Phrases like “asking for it” are thrown carelessly into the air as if anyone would want their bodies violated. Tess’ mindset is so akin to my own & other survivors when I was still struggling with what happened to me.

Writing in theses stages of doubt and self-blame is equally important as the end product of survivor. No one jumps from the trauma to complete healing. I highlighted this passage because for me it’s like, look! No one comes out with vengeance and anger on their mind, everyone starts out feeling broken.

‘There was no point. I was already ruined, and it was my own fault. I’d lost my virginity in the stupidest way imaginable. Making him stop wouldn’t bring it back. I only hoped he’d meant if when he said he wanted to marry me. He surely wouldn’t marry me if I broke his nose.”

Let me clarify that Tess comes from a religious background. I, for one, grew up in a Christian household and for those who are familiar with it know the whole rule against premarital sex. So anyway, someone who comes from such a background is affected differently. In addition to the fear of one’s parents there’s also the fear of religious persecution. I remember being unable to step into a church when all I wanted was to find comfort in prayer.

Also, let’s please talk about the misconceptions young teens have about sex. Many don’t quite understand what consent even is. Writing situations like these opens a conversation, or even informs readers that – hey, this is not what consent is!

WHAT MAKES THIS IMPORTANT?

“You’re wrong,” snapped Tess. “I was in his bed, in my chemise. I knew better.” I earned it, she wanted to add, but her voice stopped working momentarily. “Anyway, it’s not completely true that I didn’t want it. Some part of me wanted it, just not right then. And not like that.”

Firstly, it portrays rape within a consensual relationship. The author reveals to us that non-consensual even if you’ve been with the person for a day or a month, or years, is still non-consensual. 

Secondly, the victim blaming aspect is so demeaning and in Will’s case a subtle manipulation. Through Tess we’re given a first-hand experience of the abuse. It’s nothing at all like her getting hit or viciously insulted, no, it’s an emotional abuse that is rarely portrayed and glossed over even in real life.

Thirdly, the author confronts the victim blaming through secondary characters, not once implying that Tess was to blame. This part struck me as I felt it was a sort reassurance to me and other victims. It was as though through Tess the author’s telling us

Finally, it shows us that Tess is the one who saved herself without a macho-hero, without magic, without blood…

She saved herself by running away, by confronting her mother’s religious teachings and her loneliness; Tess was her own saviour because she opened up about her rape, admitting finally that what was done to her was wrong. She recognized herself as victim and her own personal triumph. Equally important is Tess showed us that overcoming assault isn’t a one day healing process.  Overcoming trauma is a step you begin again everyday to empower yourself.

Honestly, this is a rare for me in Young Adult Fantasy books. Hartman is brazen in her portrayal of Tess’ reaction to her rape and how it affected Tess. 

Set of dividers in nature design. Vector illustration.

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In the medieval kingdom of Goredd, women are expected to be ladies, men are their protectors, and dragons get to be whomever they want. Tess, stubbornly, is a troublemaker. You can’t make a scene at your sister’s wedding and break a relative’s nose with one punch (no matter how pompous he is) and not suffer the consequences. As her family plans to send her to a nunnery, Tess yanks on her boots and sets out on a journey across the Southlands, alone and pretending to be a boy.

Where Tess is headed is a mystery, even to her. So when she runs into an old friend, it’s a stroke of luck. This friend is a quigutl–a subspecies of dragon–who gives her both a purpose and protection on the road. But Tess is guarding a troubling secret. Her tumultuous past is a heavy burden to carry, and the memories she’s tried to forget threaten to expose her to the world in more ways than one.

Goodreads

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What are your opinions about YA Fantasy and its discussion on sex & abuse? Are there any books you’ve read that have addressed these issues well?

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26 thoughts on “[Cam’s Bookish Tales] LET’S TALK ABUSE AND RAPE IN YA FANTASY ft. Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman

  1. Thank you so much for writing this. Tess of the Road was on my TBR but it just got knocked to the top. I am so sorry you had to go through an assault. No one should have to go through that, I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. I haven’t read Tess yet but I love the way you explained everything in your post. Its as if you have had the same thoughts about every rape scene I have ever read in YA and Fantasy. I have made a lot of progress since my own case. It was just like you said, at first you are just broken and you blame yourself. “Why didn’t I fight harder?” As much as I hate that there are other people that have been through this, it is nice to know I am not alone. Thank You.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh wow, I had no idea this book dealt with these issues, and I’m really happy you had this discussion. I definitely think rape and sexual assault SHOULD be handled more in YA, but often it feels like it’s completely glossed over. I recently read a book where the protagonists’ best friend who had a crush on her suddenly pinned her on the sofa and tried to kiss her. She kicked him away but he only tried harder, and the only reason he stopped was because she kicked his (expensive) violin. She was terrified…but she never went to her principle (this happened at school) or called his parents. Instead, by the next chapter she barely even talked about it, and in the end of the book there was a quick paragraph talking to the boys’ mom, asking her to take her son to therapy. It felt so demeaning and like it was such a NON-issue that he probably would have kept going if she hadn’t distracted him.

    Anyway, yes, this needs to be talked about better for younger audiences. Tess sounds like even better book than I’d anticipated, but I don’t think I’m ready to read it just yet. But I thank you for calling attention to this subject.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. OMG what??? That is sick! When I was younger, reading things like these didn’t stick out much to me. Because they were normalized and seemed to be a part of romance, you know? Especially with books having the character end up with the abuser/rapist, the latter apologizing and suddenly everything seeming okay…Like, many young kids are made vulnerable because of this potrayal.

      Sending some virtual hugs your way ❤

      Like

  3. This is such an important topic and you’re completely right, it is entirely overlooked in YA- this book seems to handle the topic in one of the realest ways I’ve seen. Although I have thankfully not been placed in any similar positions, I can definitely emphasize with the main character- this definitely sounds like a really important book in YA.
    Thank you for reviewing it and bringing attention on this topic 💛 Brilliant post 💛

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I can’t read this book, cause it will make me cry and act as a trigger. I don’t think it’ll never get over being sexually molested as a child by a family member, one day I’ll get the therapy I need, but I am good, I am aware and I don’t let it rule my life, so I really hate it when rape and abuse is used in books because it’s a convenient way to create sympathy, especially when it’s tossed recklessly, I hate it. But this book you’ve outlined it to be a very meaningful book and I know it will wreck me. I loved this post though and I’m glad you had this discussion.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, sweetheart, I hope you’re doing alright. I understand not wanting to go to therapy. I had such troubles with it as well!

      Ugh, I hate it when books do that as well. So many popular books AND TV shows do it without even questioning the impact. I’m happy to hear your thoughts on this and wish you much love. If you ever need to talk I’ll be here ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Such a great discussion Cam!! You’re so brave! Sharing sometimes is the only way that helps others to listen, especially with a topic as sensitive as this… I hope authors and those who have been assaulted will find this and other posts like it! I wish that I could have cared about Tess… that she was raped and had it effect her for so long. I certainly don’t think she deserved it at all… I was pretty sickened by Will… it freaked me out that she was 13, just a child! It was hard knowing Will got away with it… So many young woman don’t feel comfortable coming forward… ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Oh, wow. I’m so sorry you had to go through this yourself, Cam. 😦 This is such an important topic, and I didn’t know that Tess on the Road gives this a lot of focus. Being Catholic as well, I know that something like this will definitely affect me differently, but we should bring ourselves to be strong–of course, not all at once, but we should learn to heal ourselves with time. And coming forward to talk about it is one of the strongest things a woman can do. Thank you for opening up. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  7. You talking about this, to your followers, is difficult and heavy. I can only send you virtual hugs or confront if needed.
    Sharing your view on this is really important. Too many times relationship, abuse and rape get romanticezed, glosseed over or used as some kind of strenght-fetish for women. This only help to normalize it or use it as something that cannot be touched or really discussed, also never adressing the system that try to cover up and integrate this things.
    A lot of teens and also more young adults had such experience and, yes while it’s a difficult topic not easy to handle at all, it would be important to bring awareness to this. Even it this awereness should already exist.

    Liked by 1 person

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