Author: Sarah Beth Durst
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Rating: ★★★★★ || 4.5
Liyana is raised knowing that she will die. This is a certainty. She is the vessel of the god of the Goat Tribe, Bayla. She has kept her body pure and perfect, avoiding scrapes and injury, trained for years to learn the dance to summon her deity. On the day Liyana is to let go of her soul and go to the Dreaming, so to better make way for her goddess, she is prepared to say goodbye. Yet she doesn’t die. Bayla never comes, and as a result Liyana is cast out to die by her tribe so that they may have the opportunity to try again with another vessel.
But then a figure steps out of a sandstorm: Korbyn, the trickster god, who is one of the few to have found his vessel. He tells Liyana that she has not failed in summoning Bayla, that Bayla and several of the other gods have gone missing, and asks her to accompany him on his quest to reach the other vessels before it’s too late, so that they might find their gods together.
There are several things I love in a fantasy novel: a non-European setting that engages strongly and creatively with the possibilities that arise from that, strong characters, particularly strong female characters, great worldbuilding, real engagement with the ritual of religion, and, most difficult, perhaps, a meta/textual engagement with the act and the process of mythmaking and storytelling. Vessel has all of these and is easily one of my favourite novels to date.
The non-European setting derives from the fact that the novel is set in a desert that seems at least in part to be derived from West Asia and North Africa (MENA), but doesn’t seem to be inspired by any culture in particular, which is always worrisome, as the countries in those geopolitical regions tend to be homogenised, their cultures erased. This is, however, a fantasy novel that is not, as Soundless, for example does, explicitly referencing certain cultures. In scope, it’s much like Kate Elliot’s Spiritwalker series or N.K. Jemisin’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms series––there are certain beats you can recognise, and you can tell that the characters are of colour, and you can tell that the setting is not necessarily European, but by and large the greater portion of it is pure fantasy, which to some level mitigates the offense a more badly-handled book may cause (at least in my opinion, but it should be noted that I don’t possess any real knowledge of those particular regions).
And though the novel is primarily about Liyana, the cast of characters, particularly the vessels, are quite diverse. Though they are ostensibly the same people with the same pantheon and same beliefs, the characters come from separate tribes with clear identities and clearly differing attitudes towards their vessels. Layla is cast out following her failed summoning, but Fennik, the chief’s son of the Horse Tribe, and Pia, the treasured jewel of the Silk Clan, are still valued. Raan of the Scorpion Clan hates being a vessel, while the vessel of the Falcon Clan is killed outright after his failed summoning.
They also have personalities that really fit their upbringing: Liyana is resigned and practical, Fennik is brash and arrogant, and Pia is spoiled and traditionalist, while Raan is defiant, openly aggravating for change. I am quite wary of the way Pia’s blindness is portrayed, as her ability to navigate is stressed multiple times (and compared to that of sighted people), her ability to see “beyond” the possession of sight, and these are things that raise my hackles, but as a sighted person I cannot say for sure whether or not these are offensive, only that the reader should be aware.
As for the worldbuilding and the religion, all I can really say is that Durst is very clearly in control of her world, and she very obviously put a lot of thought into it. The stories that the people of the turtle tell each other, tell themselves, the way they relate to their gods, to their afterlife, to their creation––this is not only a story stemming from religion and when religion fails, it’s also a story about religion and how religion gives people hope, and purpose, and community.
The novel also raises a lot of issues with the idea of sacrifice, of consent. Raan is made into a vessel against her will and she openly celebrates the absence of the gods, questioning why they must go on this quest to free them if all it will mean is that she will die. Yet Liyana is not necessarily anticipating her death, but willing to sacrifice her life if it means ensuring that her family, and most especially her four-year-old brother, will survive another hundred years in a desert currently in the middle of a drought. Yet even she is unable to prevent herself from loving Korbyn, the lover of her goddess.
I did have some issues with the idea of imperialism and the Crescent Empire being mitigated by the young Emperor’s good intent, but the full implications of his imperialism (particularly because of certain plot points) are sort of skated over––addressed, but not nearly to the extent that it could have been, particularly given the Emperor’s ultimate role in the story. I enjoyed the romances, even though a few of them could have used a little bit more development, but that particular lack of development wasn’t something I minded overmuch, given how well the world was rendered.
In summation, god, please, read this book if you like things about practical girls going on fantastic adventures (a la Howl’s Moving Castle), about politics and empire and the immediacy of religion and gods in our lives (a la Queen’s Thief), if you like stories about stories and making your own stories, about destiny and what happens after destiny. I’m generally wary of stories set in/inspired by MENA, South Asia, and East Asia that are described as “lush” and “opulent,” because those tend to be rife with Orientalism and fetishisation, so the highest and truest praise I can give this book is this: it is sparse, it is hard, above all, it feels honest, and thoughtful, and considered. That is not to say the writing is not lyrical––it is. But it doesn’t add embellishments where there don’t need to be any, and lets the story speak for itself, which I think is the best thing a storyteller can do.