Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst

Vessel is the most unique fantasy novel I’ve read this year, and its execution is worthy of it.

Liyana has trained her whole life to be the vessel for her tribe’s goddess, Bayla. When Liyana dances and a magician speaks the correct words, Bayla will be called and inhabit Liyana’s body, displacing Liyana’s soul. The ritual kills Liyana, but Bayla needs a body to work the magic that will bring rain to the desert and save the lives of everyone who calls it home.

Liyana is prepared to sacrifice herself to save her tribe, but although the ritual is performed flawlessly, Bayla doesn’t come. Her tribe decides that Bayla decreed Liyana unworthy of her, and they abandon her to the desert. Liyana survives on her own for a bit, but her prospects are bleak.

And then a young man approaches her, claiming to be the trickster god Korbyn. He tells Liyana that the various tribes’ gods and goddesses have been trapped in false vessels, and they must team up together to rescue them or the desert people will perish. So Liyana joins Korbyn on his trek through the desert, gathering up the other tribes’ failed vessels of other gods and goddesses and heading east, toward the Crescent Empire, where Korbyn says the deities have been imprisoned.

The desert setting Durst has created is wonderful. Liyana loves her desert, though it is a harsh place to live. In one scene, she defends it to another character, and her words inspire love for the desert in the reader, too. Durst makes the desert a unique, fully-realized place, not a thinly-veiled copy of Middle Earth.

I loved many other things about the book, too. The magic system has rules that make sense, and it’s never used as a deus ex machina. On their journey, Liyana and Korbyn swap stories about the deities that we would normally call fables or folklore, but they also have an impact on the story and its characters. Liyana herself is protective of her people and her culture, but she’s not blinded by faith, either. Durst balances these two aspects of her personality well – she is neither blindly obedient nor the stereotypical rebel. The supporting cast all have distinctive personalities as well, even those who do not get much page time.

Many books start with a unique premise, but then execute that premise in a predictable way (Crewel is a recent example). Durst adeptly avoids this pitfall. Vessel isn’t a book full of twists and turns, but nor does it lead exactly where I thought it would. It’s believable and interesting throughout, and I never felt that I had read the story a hundred times before.

Lastly, I liked how the religion in the book wasn’t mythical (in the way that we consider ancient Greek religion mythical – fun, untrue stories that people used to believe). Liyana’s gods and goddesses are real, and they truly inhabit the bodies of others to work their magic. A lot of fantasy doesn’t go there, which is fine, but it’s more unusual to see it actually presented as the characters believe.

I know the cover doesn’t change what’s inside, but Vessel has a particularly striking one. I love the combination of pinks, oranges, and browns, and I love how powerful Liyana looks on it. The cover seems to depict her in the midst of her dance to draw Bayla to her, meaning that while it does depict a pretty girl in a pretty dress, it’s also relevant to the story. (And I’ll admit that I love looking at pretty dresses.)

Vessel is a great example of new territory fantasy can mine. One of the things I love most about reading fantasy is that anything is possible. The author has the whole world plus all imagined worlds to work with. Durst has done a terrific job with her imagined world.

I’d recommend this for fans of Girl of Fire and Thorns (for the hero’s journey aspect), For Darkness Shows the Stars (for the unique/believable world-building aspect), Shadows on the Moon (for the non-Western fantasy aspect), and possibly older readers of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon/Starry River of the Sky (for the folkore/mythology aspect). Its appeal should be wide to fantasy fans in general, but it’s a good example of story and writing that can draw in tentative fantasy readers as well.

Because I was curious and I figured you all might be too, below is a video of Sarah Beth Durst discussing the development of the idea behind Vessel. You can also read the first two chapters of the book at her website.

Finished copy received from the publisher. Vessel is available now.


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