Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst
Margaret K. McElderry Books (Simon&Schuster), 2012.
Hardcover, 424 pages. teen fiction, fantasy.
Every 100 years the gods enter their chosen vessels in order to help their tribes regain the kind of footing that humans and nature have caused to slip. This is the only way the gods can intervene using magic, otherwise they abjure to the Dreaming and live out stories that inevitably create new creatures, events, and relationships. The Desert tribes are suffering a terrible drought and their only hope is the return of their deities (each honoring a god or goddess of their own). Liyana’s people worship Bayla and after her dream walk, Liyana is chosen as the vessel in which the goddess will inhabit in order to walk among her people.
Liyana does not meet her fate without fear, but she would fulfill her destiny for the sake of her people, her little brother’s future in particular. Despite a long and flawlessly performed ceremony, Bayla does not come and the tribe (with familial exception) are sure Liyana is to blame. They leave her to her fate in the desert.
A beautiful young man named Korbyn finds her. He is the trickster god and her goddess’ beloved. He is also the only god not to be deceived into “false vessels,” but this means he is the only one to correct this very dangerous situation. The plan involves rounding up the chosen vessels and he convinces Liyana to not forsake her destiny and help him find the other vessels before their ceremonies and/or before something bad can happen to them.
Liyana is an ideal character to follow, a steady and practically minded girl, observant and clever, and faced with a growing affection for her goddess’ beloved. Durst does not make things easy, but she builds strength and intelligence into her central character. With the meeting of the vessels comes different responses to the idea of sacrificing one’s self and body for the sake of the gods and the tribes. The personalities of the vessels echo that of their deity, as do the tribes for that matter.
The desert people are not the only ones to figure into the story, and not for the desire of an easy villain. There are no easy villains, every hero hard-won. It may seem odd to say, but Durst fights for her major characters—for their chance at living a full life, whether they be god or mortal, likable or no. The characters imperfections fuel the conflicts, but so do their most admirable traits. And the compassion Durst infuses into the story wins a delicately tread battle. For all the myth telling and supernatural elements, like the water Korbyn draws from the depths, Durst does not cheat her audience by pulling something from nowhere.
The threading in of myth is so beautifully done and I adore its use as Durst brings a rich culture to life. The arduous journey is perfectly imperiled. And the ending fraught with the kind of conflict that is seriously angst inducing. Characters will be lost, love tested. Durst crafts an entertaining read, but Vessel has other benefits worth noting. The clash between the ‘advanced’ society of the neighboring empire and the desert people is worth noting because Vessel works to undermine popular assumptions like General Xevi’s:
“Look at these people,” General Xevi said. He waved his hand at the clans. His jeweled rings flashed in the glaring sun. “They are barely above animals, scratching their lives out of the sand. If they had access to special powers, they would have built cities! We would be facing an advanced culture with civilized tools and weaponry. As it is we are facing the equivalent of our ancestors. Let us show them what the modern man can do.” (356)
The emperor’s motives, however, allow for his willingness for broader perspectives—for all their “advances” their resources have been diminished by the great drought as well.
Sarah Beth Durst weaves a wonderful fantasy fiction that is, as Tamora Pierce writes, “unique and breathtaking.” Liyana is a fantastic female lead, vulnerable yet determined, beautiful and intelligent. The adventure compels. And the romantic aspects treated with a careful hand: enough intensity to derive angst, but with an ease of the throttle to keep from overtaking the story completely. Initially I thought some of the romantic aspects had conveniences, but I’m too happy with outcomes to quibble, let alone linger over such thoughts real or perceived. I do not read a lot of young adult fiction fantasy, but I read enough for “unique” and “refreshing” to come to mind–after I got my breathing back, of course.
recommendations: I mentioned in my end-of-2012 wrap-up that Vessel nearly made it into the “top 3 favorite ya” reads. I think it an easy recommendation for those who love mythology and the fantasy genre in general. ages 12 and up would be best. Durst does not retire situations for young audiences. I think the older crowd’s concerns with identity, personhood and sexuality enrich the experience with the text—not that this wouldn’t be good for the re-read. Good writing and reading for those who like their adventures to star an non-white protagonist upon occasion, to say nothing of a presentation of a less common perspective.