Sarah Beth Durst’s Vessel opens with a young woman being prepared for a ceremonial dance. At the end of the dance, she will be dead and her body will be filled with that of her clan’s goddess.
I first heard about this book from The Big Idea piece the author wrote for Whatever, and I’m glad I did–I don’t think I would have found out about it otherwise, as I don’t read a whole lot of YA.
The premise caught my attention immediately and it seemed like the sort of thing I’d like. I have a thing for books with well thought out religious systems and ones where the gods interact with their believers. The concept of avatars isn’t new, but what was new (to me) here was the idea that the body’s original soul would be displaced in favor of that of the god or goddess.
So what happens here is that Liyana performs the ritual–all night–and her goddess, Bayla, doesn’t come. This is a source of deep consternation for her clan because the goddess has never not come and their first inclination is that Liyana must be somehow impure. Based on what little information they have, the clan’s elders decide that the clan must leave and prepare another vessel, abandoning Liyana to the desert. Her family leaves her a pack of surreptitious supplies which Liyana finds and makes use of; however, the tent gets torn when it’s attacked by a sand wolf in the midst of a sandstorm (Liyana dispatches the sand wolf with the knife made from the scale of a sky serpent that her younger brother left for her). As she rails against the unfair universe which has taken away her destiny and left her alone in the desert, a young man appears–the vessel of the trickster god, Korbyn. He tells her that the different deities have been kidnapped and that they need to find the other vessels and then rescue the gods and goddesses. Liyana agrees, but not with out reservations–Korbyn isn’t a trickster god for nothing, after all.
Instead of summarizing the rest of the plot, which goes more or less as you’d expect it to, I’d like to talk about the things that really impressed me about this book. The setting and worldbuilding were just outstanding in a way that made everything in the book feel so real. Liyana’s people have so many stories and she seems to know them all. The differences between the different desert clans was so well-done–it was clear that they were distinct groups that belonged to the same culture (if that makes sense). The different clans seemed to take on the qualities of their deity in a way that was really interesting.
The wildlife that lived in the desert was fascinating as well; I was especially fond of the worms that lived under the salt flats that were drawn by the slightest bit of moisture (they did NOT have to walk without rhythm though). The way magic worked was consistent and thoroughly explained in a way that made it plausible that Liyana would be able to learn how to work magic–and her struggle to learn it was great, too, no protagonistic dispensation to fast learning for her.
The pacing was also really good–the book never felt frenetic or forced and the action took place at the speed it needed to happen and I never felt as if there was any unnecessary lingering on any particular scene.
There were things I didn’t care for, too. The obligatory YA love triangle felt forced and I didn’t really think it worked in the context of the book, especially with the way it ended. I really dislike the fact that nearly every YA book these days has a romantic triangle–it wasn’t necessary for this book and, I think, it made the overall story arc a bit weaker than it would have been otherwise. There was more than enough going on without that bit. (On the other hand, the internal-ish conflict that Liyana had with her goddess was really great and the romantic tension there did work because it was thoroughly established in the background that there was a prior relationship between Bayla and Korbyn.)
I was also able to figure out how the deities had been captured and who was responsible fairly easily and I almost expected a spot of mustache twirling on the part of the villain. But those are really quite minor flaws in what was a rather outstanding novel and I’d recommend this to anyone looking for an interesting fantasy novel with a protagonist who has to grapple with how she’s going to save the world and not lose herself in the process.