VESSEL by SARAH BETH DURST
In a desert world of sandstorms and sand-wolves, a teen girl must defy the gods to save her tribe in this mystical, atmospheric tale from the author of Drink, Slay, Love.
Liyana has trained her entire life to be the vessel of a goddess. The goddess will inhabit Liyana’s body and use magic to bring rain to the desert. But Liyana’s goddess never comes. Abandoned by her angry tribe, Liyana expects to die in the desert. Until a boy walks out of the dust in search of her.
Korbyn is a god inside his vessel, and a trickster god at that. He tells Liyana that five other gods are missing, and they set off across the desert in search of the other vessels. For the desert tribes cannot survive without the magic of their gods. But the journey is dangerous, even with a god’s help. And not everyone is willing to believe the trickster god’s tale.
|Get a load of that! And perfectly representative, too!|
I shouldn't think it's a surprise that, having seen the cover and read the synopsis of this book, I was excited and intrigued. It's a non-European inspired setting and it deals with gods and faith and has what sounds like a strong heroine; all very much my bag. Plus, it all reminded me a little bit of one of my absolute favourite YA fantasies, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, which also has a desert setting and depicts the interference of god into human lives.
However, that level of interest also made me feel a tiny bit wary because it would be so easy for this book to let me down. I hesitated over buying the ebook for a few days, then finally bit the bullet and downloaded it to take with me on my journey last Friday.
I did not regret it. From the very first line this story caught me up and refused to let my attention go. Get a load of this:
On the day she was to die, Liyana walked out of her family's tent to see the dawn. She buried her toes in the sand, cold from the night, and she wrapped her father's goatskin cloak tight around her shoulders. She had only moments before everyone would wake.
Right?! Who could put the book down after THAT?
Sarah Beth Durst's world-building is a thing of wonder - beautifully subtle, with almost no noticeable exposition, but a sense of immersiveness that makes her setting just shine off the pages. The mention of glass dragons and sand wolves might make you think you were going to get something quite whimsical and surreal; in fact, that's not the case at all. The unnamed desert land within which almost all of the story takes place actually has a very gritty, real quality.
Through the main character Liyana's intense, sensory experiences of life in her beloved desert, and through the stories that Liyana trades with and is told by others throughout the book, we get a rich sense of a living, breathing environment - of the beauty and terror of shifting sands, endless skies and isolated oases - and of a textured, evolving culture that is clearly influenced by many of the cultures of this world, but in a really interested and respectful way.
Speaking of Liyana? Well, I'd read a couple of reviews that stated Liyana was hard to empathise with or that she was - you know - that word. The one that ends in Mary and finishes with Sue? Grghgh. Fools! Fools! Liyana is precisely the kind of heroine that I love to read about, and which YA fantasy needs more of! She is a person, not a stereotype! She is flawed, yet awesome! I loved her!
The protagonist of the novel is truly strong, not just because she is a sensible, capable young woman with hard won survival skills and a badass knife made out of the scale of a glass dragon. Liyana has the kind of high moral bravery that motivates women here in the real world to achieve astonishing everyday feats and make humbling sacrifices in order to keep their families safe and fed. But in the midst of her sense of duty and purpose - and her quest, which is literally a matter of life and death for her people - Liyana is also always willing to listen, to learn, and to reassess the facts as needed. I loved her subtle, dry sense of humour and her unwillingly soft heart that causes her to care even for her enemies.
After being abandoned by her family and her tribe, Liyana is torn by conflicting emotions. Soon everything that she knows about her Gods and her own purpose in life is turned upside down, and she's facing truly fearful dilemmas, choices that will affect not only her own life but the lives of everyone and everything she cares about. While her turmoil is sensitively portrayed, the book never strays into over-emotionalism (wish I knew how to get that balance right) and it was a real treat to read about a young woman who both felt things deeply and was also able to override her emotions and act ruthlessly when necessary.
Without spoiling too much (the synopsis there is carefully devoid of details) I will say that Vessel provided me with one of the few romantic storylines I've read lately which actually eluded labels or predictability. I don't think predictability is always a bad thing, by the way, but it was really intriguing to be faced with a situation in which I not only couldn't *guess* how things were going to end up, but also couldn't make up my mind how I *wanted* them to end up. I was surprised and delighted by the ending.
I was also really satisfied by the way that the plot developed. The book was well paced - no long stretches of boredom, or even any places where my attention wavered for a page or two. And it may have been a result of reading an ebook, which made it impossible to really judge just where I was in the story, but I loved the fact that just when I thought we'd gotten to the end and the quest was complete, it turned out that nothing was as simple as that, and everything Liyana (and I!) had assumed was going to unfold at that point... didn't. That's not an easy trick to pull off!