Published: 2012, McElderry Books
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Source: Library book
Source: Library book
Ever since I first saw the cover and read the promotional blurb for Vessel, I knew that this was something that I had to read. There's little I love more in high fantasy worlds than solid worldbuilding with a believable mythology that has a relevant place in the world's culture. And while its cover does fall into the trope of a girl wearing a pretty dress, this cover is very relevant to the plot. I went into this book expecting an engaging new high fantasy and was not disappointed in the slightest.
Liyana has spent the majority of her life knowing that she is a vessel for her clan's goddess, Bayla, and that through her body Bayla will be able to perform miracles and allow the Goat Clan to survive for another one hundred years. It's an honor being chosen as a vessel, but it is also a tragedy: for a deity to take control of one's body, the vessel's spirit must die. Liyana has grown up knowing that this would happen and believes she has completely accepted her fate. On the day she is to die, however, Liyana cannot help wishing that she was not a vessel, that she didn't have to give up her life at such a young age. And then something unexpected happens: Liyana performs her role in the ceremonial dance perfectly, inviting Bayla to come and inhabit her body, but Bayla does not come. The Goat Clan needs Bayla's powers to survive the Great Drought and so they abandon Liyana in the desert, hoping that by selecting a new location and vessel, they can summon Bayla to them.
Alone and bereft of purpose, Liyana fortunately doesn't have to spend much time contemplating her existence before the trickster god Korbyn, properly summoned to his human vessel, walks out of the desert and tells Liyana that many of the gods and goddesses have been summoned to inhabit false vessels and that he needs her help to restore order. Liyana and Korbyn travel across the desert to bring together other vessels whose gods have failed to answer their summons and then seek out their missing gods.
I have a huge weakness for a fantasy that features a "Chosen One" storyline. Liyana was chosen by her clan as the perfect vessel for their goddess Bayla, but being chosen for this honor involves a sacrifice of the self. Liyana is more than willing to pay that price to see her loved ones survive, but she, like most people placed in that position, still questions her fate. The beginning sequence of the novel beautifully details the day that Liyana believes she will die, from when she awakes until when she believes she is to breathe her last breath. In a lot of ways, the beginning of the book reminds me of my absolute favorite chapter of the Harry Potter series: "The Forest Again." As I said, I definitely have a thing for the heightened emotions that come with the Chosen One attempting to fulfill his/her destiny.
Even though the Goat Clan easily abandons Liyana once it appears that Bayla has forsaken her, Liyana is a protagonist whose struggles will continue to resonate with me for a while. Throughout the novel Liyana feels a push and pull from her two main conflicting mentalities: she wants to do whatever she can to help her people, but at the same time she can't but wish for another way, a way to help that didn't involve her self-sacrifice. Vessel deals with some major issues and is a very thought-provoking novel. Liyana is the perfect protagonist for this novel: practical, hopeful, determined to always look forward towards a better future. And then to contrast her are the other vessels. Both Pia and Fennik wholeheartedly accept their fates, while Raan goes so far as to openly rebel against hers. None of them are cliches, however, and over the course of the novel Liyana and the readers are able to understand the various beliefs that drive each character's actions. It made me so emotional to read about all these vessels, for very different reasons. Where does one draw the line between selfishness and self-preservation? While their struggles are not exactly relatable, I nonetheless found that I had a pretty good understanding of the characters and their conflicts.
The worldbuilding is truly wonderful. I could so vividly picture the great deserts full of so many perils, from the sand wolves to the cobras to the sky snakes to the sand worms to more natural disasters like draughts. Since the desert clans seemed to have an oral culture, I loved how Durst revealed more of their culture and history through stories. I am sure that the mythologies do pay homage to actual cultures and civilizations, but they also retain a sense of feeling absolutely organic to this world that Durst has created. I had a few nitpicky questions about how big each clan actually is and about their lives in general, but that information is not the focus of the story, so I was able disregard those questions. What matters more to me is that Durst is able to create a high fantasy world and contain a storyline within one book, not too common a feat these days. Of course I would never say no to more worldbuilding, I think it's far more important for an author to tell the story he or she wants to tell without feeling the need to expand it into multiple series because of our series-oriented society.
While the shifting points of view were not my favorite part of the book (no surprise here), I thought they kind of made sense. The Crescent Empire is not immune to the Great Drought any more than the clans of the desert are, and so we as readers are privy to occasional chapters focusing on the emperor and his quest to find the fabled magical lake and there use magic to somehow help restore his lands. Of all the important characters, I think that the emperor is the least developed, but then again I am glad that the focus of this story is on the gods and the desert people rather than the emperor and the people of his empire.
Really the only complaint I have with this book is related to the romance. I was willing to overlook the initial almost-love-triangle strangeness because it wasn't a true triangle and the feelings that develop between two characters seem understandable and almost organic. And, yes, I also accepted the fact that this relationship does not truly make sense in the context of this world, so I wasn't overly heartbroken. I was confused, however, by the new relationship established at the end. There wasn't nearly as much context, although I think that much of that relationship's formulation would have happened after the end of the book and before the epilogue. But regardless of the few romance qualms I had, Vessel provides an intense focus on its protagonist Liyana and her personal struggles and development.
Vessel is undisputedly one of the superior novels I've read this year. It features a well-crafted storyline, detailed worldbuilding, and three-dimensional characters. I would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a fantastic high fantasy stand-alone. I will be looking through Sarah Beth Durst's published book backlog and can't wait to hear about any upcoming novels!