Offbeat Unicorn

For those who like unicorns with sharp hooves and mystery

Genre: Dragon fantasy, YA, coming-of-age

Age Range: 14+

Synopsis: Tess Dombegh is tired of being the family “spank magnet.” Though she’s set on getting her angelic twin sister, Jeanne, married off to a suitable nobleman, Tess can’t help messing up again…and punching the groom’s brother after getting accidentally-on-purpose drunk means that she might wind up trapped in a nunnery as her final punishment. So, when Tess meets up with an old friend, the quigutl-dragon Pathka, she runs away from the life she’s known. But Tess is running away from more than her family’s disapproval. She’s running away from secrets and memories she can’t stand to think about.  Meanwhile, Pathka has a mission of his own, one that Tess hopes will give her a new sense of purpose. As she falls in with bandits, geologists, monks, and poets, Tess learns that Pathka’s search might have dire consequences…and might provide the challenge she needs to heal herself.

With an engaging heroine, witty, earthy, funny language, and original worldbuilding, this companion novel to Seraphina (2012) and Shadow Scale (2015) can be read independently…but should definitely be read. NOW!

Analysis:

A Quick Thought Re: Dragons and Girls (versus Unicorns and Girls)

Reading Tess of the Road makes me wonder about dragons versus unicorns as companion species for female heroines.

Whereas unicorns are limited by their association with “goodness,” a term that unimaginatively gets real banal real fast, dragons are “bad.” Dragons are famously grouchy, aggressive, violent…and intelligent. So, pairing girls with dragons is an easy way to telegraph a rejection of traditional femininity. Hartman is, of course, AMAZING, so she goes several leagues beyond “girl likes dragon, therefore girl not boring/naïve/constrained.” Because…

Here be – OMG ORIGINAL – dragons.

In Tess of the Road’s fantasy world, most dragons take human form and function as doctors, academicians, and inventors. If their emotional register tends towards the logical, they can still function within human society. But not all. Tess’s friend Pathka is a quigutl, a type of dragon that resembles a cross between a chameleon and an iguana. The quigutls are unique (and disliked by other dragons) in looking and behaving un-human.

In much dragon literature, hyperintelligent dragons not only master, but speak human language (Naomi Novik’s His Majesty’s Dragon, Patricia Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons, Tolkien’s Smaug). In Hartman’s universe, the quigutls don’t have the biological capacity to mimic human noises. They rely on mechanical contraptions to translate for them…or, more rarely, for people like Tess Dombegh to take the initiative and learn to understand their language.

Hartman masterfully presents us with a language that is grammatically – and philosophically – different than English (or Goreddi, etc).

Their language includes a grammatical case that encapsulates something and it’s opposite at the same time. So, a word can refer to being/unbeing at the same time. This refusal of opposites, or rather, the ability for something to be both/and instead of either/or is essential to Pathka’s take on life…and is essential to helping Tess recover from the repressive rhetorics of womanhood that her mother has forced upon her.

In shades of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, the quigutl switch their biological sex several times throughout their life-cycle. Tess first encounters Pathka when the dragon is trying to lay her eggs; when they meet again, Pathka is male. The normalization of this switching forces you to think through human constructions of gender versus biological sex, especially when Tess dons male clothes. The quigutl’s gender-neutral pronoun, “ko,” provides a way to move beyond human binaries and Tess’s eagerness to engage with quigutl language and culture is paralleled by Tess’s need to as a way of first protecting herself and second reconsidering the biological and social violence enacted on her female body and third, coming to a point where she feels like can make her own identity independent of the constricting gender roles of Goreddi society.

Hartman is masterful in handling Tess’s spiritual and emotional recovery from an abusive relationship. Tess is allowed to tell her story without victimizing herself and she’s allowed to have new friendships and new sexual partners without these other people “saving” her.

Pathka’s sex-switches and non-human culture don’t make him “better” to humans and human culture. Rather, they provide space for Tess to think through individual choices and their consequences. For example, Pathka has a complicated relationship with his daughter, Kikuyu. Tess’s childhood adoration of Pathka makes room for a more nuanced view of how Pathka has failed as a parent…allowing Tess to reassess her own mother and…well, I’m not going to say more here.

Spoiler alert/mom-feelz warning: This book made me ugly-cry in its depiction of pregnancy, infant-loss, and eldercare (yes, they are connected.) Hartman uses earthy, grounded language that emphasizes certain embodied aspects of female experience that reminded me of Margo Lanagan’s prose. (But with a redemptive, eventual sense of humour.) This book is heartbreaking AND FUNNY. If you like having your heart ripped out and stomped on with no laughs, check out Lanagan’s stuff.

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