Wednesday, September 14, 2022

In the Serpent’s Wake by Rachel Hartman: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

In the Serpent's Wake by Rachel Hartman

In the Serpent’s Wake continues directly from where the first book, Tess of the Road, ended. Tess is journeying again, this time over the sea to the freezing, uncharted southern archipelagos full of mysterious peoples, in search of another world serpent to save her quigutl friend Pathka, and to spy for her queen. No one knows the way, but that doesn’t stop them from trying.

Unlike the first book, this isn’t a journey (voyage?) into Tess herself, her trauma and redemption. She has been sent to observe how a rivalling nation treats the southern colonies they’ve conquered, and whether or not her queen should do something about it. She isn’t entirely free from her past though. There’s Spira, a dragon she has wronged, and Will, the man who is the cause of Tess’s trauma.

Tess isn’t the sole point of view character anymore. We follow Spira through their identity crisis, and Countess Marga, the leader of the expedition, who is forced to face the consequences of her privilege; Hama, the Watcher protecting the serpent, and occasional other characters, like Tess’s brother-in-law Jacomo who had followed her in the shadows through the first book to his own redemption story. Not all of them moved the story forward. Spira’s story especially was more a parallel one without impact, although it was interesting, and some were unnecessary in hindsight and only lengthened the book.

This is a large story told in a relatively short space, and one that takes it well out of young adult category to adult fantasy. Over and over again, Tess witnesses the oppression and subduing of the native peoples in the hands of the outsiders, an open criticism of the colonialism in our world and the harm it has caused. She has a great need to help them, but everything she tries either fails, makes things worse, or is met with scorn, as she behaves like only the ‘civilised’ world can bring salvation to the natives. In the end, she learns to ask, what do the people themselves need and want.

By the time the story reaches that point, the book rather abruptly ends. Tess would finally have the means to navigate the natives’ lands to the serpent, only for her journey to end and Pathka to leave with the natives. She is sent home with a vague prophecy of the task ahead of her. It left her story so open that I hope there will be at least one more book that gives her a conclusion. I would hate to see her journey end here.

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