Thursday, April 18, 2013 |
How many books have you read with a desert setting?  I’ve read more than I thought – I kept recalling more titles, more stories, all disparate but with the common thread of a background in a dry and parched land.  My latest read conjured memories of Robin McKinley’s Daria, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, the 1990 Newbery Honor book Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind, Leon Uris’ The Haj and James Michener’s The Source.  Of course, it is not really like any of those books.  But it turns out that if you combine a desert, fantasy, mythology, and a uniquely beautiful cover, I’m hooked. I certainly couldn’t turn down Sarah Beth Durst’s Vessel.

vessel by sarah beth durst book cover
Liyana has trained her entire life to be the vessel of a goddess. She will dance and summon her tribe's deity, who will inhabit Liyana's body and use magic to bring rain to the desert. But when the dance ends, Liyana is still there. Her tribe is furious--and sure that it is Liyana's fault. Abandoned by her 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. 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.

The closer she grows to Korbyn, the less Liyana wants to disappear to make way for her goddess. But she has no choice--she must die for her tribe to live. Unless a trickster god can help her to trick fate--or a human girl can muster some magic of her own.

Ever since her Dreamwalk, Liyana has known her fate: she’ll serve as a vessel for the goddess of her nomadic desert clan.  She learned the dances, she has the ritual tattoos, and today is the day to give up life to serve Bayla and her people. Liyana’s world is shattered when she performs the ritual but the goddess doesn’t come.  Abandoned by her clan to face the desert alone, she joins forces with Korbyn, who claims he is the manifestation of the Crow god.  Korbyn brings news that the gods are disappearing from the desert, and unless Liyana and he can discover why, the desert people are doomed. 

The mythology, storytelling and traditional folklore in Vessel were its high points.  Durst created a unique world with a fractured history and thousands of years of backstory.  This lent the novel an epic air, all while Liyana and her companions were facing immediate challenges to their survival, among them gathering enough water and avoiding the desert’s other dangers.

Vessel’s opening scene is one of the finest I’ve read in a YA title in a long while.  It features Liyana’s last day before fulfilling her fate and becoming her clan’s willing sacrifice to their deity.  She says goodbye to each member of her clan, bottling emotion, keeping her thoughts in check, and savoring the last of the world she believes she’ll see.  Unfortunately, Durst’s pacing through the rest of the book is a bit uneven.  The basis of the plot movement is a cross-desert journey, and at times emotion or action flag (or even seem misplaced).

Another weakness (which we might put down to personal preference) was the inclusion of a second viewpoint.  The story, while it hit a rough patch or two, was still fairly focused to that time, and I felt that the additional voice threw it sideways a couple of steps.  My final grumble was due to a resolution that was just a little faster than I wanted (again, personal preference). 

While I cannot claim that my reading experience was perfect, Vessel and Liyana surprised and impressed me in many ways.  The mythology and interplay of god/human relations was fascinating, the setting distinctive, and the description of Liyana’s emotion and character clear and direct.

Recommended for: fans of Kristin Cashore’s Graceling and Alexandra Bracken’s Brightly Woven, and anyone with an interest in unusual mythology and setting combined with young adult fantasy.


Tales of Whimsy said...

Great honest review. I've been wondering about this one.

Liviania said...

I've had this one on my want list for awhile! Dancing and mythology? Yes. That's sad to hear about the pacing, but I'll pick it up anyway because I love a good story.

Steph Su said...

Greatly appreciate the balance of this review. I think I'll automatically give everything SBD writes a try because I had such a great experience with the first book of hers that I read (Ice), but since then there's been ups and downs. Tears come to my eyes nearly every time I look at that cover (that gorgeous POC model), and it is a bit disappointing that the pacing was uneven, which can definitely throw off readers' enjoyment of the novel. Nevertheless, I'll keep your thoughts in mind when I get to this. Thanks!

Heidi said...

I adored the desert setting of this one, and realized that desert fantasy has kind of become a thing for me as of late--this one's on top of the list though. I agree that the perspective shifts seemed a bit random and not wholly necessary, but I loved this book as a whole--you are right about the opening scene, and the mythology was captivating.

Nina said...

I can't wait to read this book. I just adore the cover & I'm glad you enjoyed it..

Anonymous said...

Sarah Beth Durst's Ice was great, so I can imagine that the writing in this one is, as well. I love books that create their own mythology. I'm also a huge fan of Graceling, so I really want to read Vessel, despite the few qualms you had with it. Great review! :)

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