Author: Sarah Beth Durst
Title: Race the Sands
Sarah Beth Durst’s new book is a curious one. It is a highly entertaining, well-written and engaging book, filled with compelling characters and solid worldbuilding, without question – and yet it also prompted me to consider how exactly I view and rate my reads. So, this time I will share with you a more personal review. If you don’t want to get a glimpse of how my mind works (and I won’t blame you if you don’t, my mind IS a weird place :P), stop reading now and just check the rating 😉.
Race the Sands is an YA fantasy with a slightly Middle Eastern flavor; maybe even a bit more ancient Egyptian or Babylonian than generalized Middle Eastern, as there are emperors and priests, palaces and assassins, life-giving rivers and oddly liberating, yet deadly, swaths of deserts stretching to the horizon – and let us not forget the quite unfriendly neighborhood kingdoms. The emperors for all their power are slaves to tradition, able to rule the citizens of Becar only as much as they are ruled themselves – by the augurs, controlling the population’s religious beliefs and public opinion. There are also kehoks – lethal, horrible beasts which, in a world where reincarnation is a fact of life, are the equivalent of Christian Hell: being reborn as a kehok is a terrible penance for the sins of past lives. It is an ever-lasting punishment, doomed to repeat itself again and again, as kehoks can only be reborn in the same form, but ultimately it is not completely bereft of hope. A tiny light at the end of the tunnel shines in front of those beasts that can be tamed or broken enough to enter the traditional yearly races of Becar: the one that wins, with its rider still alive, will receive a special charm freeing it from the punishment of a kehok’s life and giving it a chance to begin the karmic cycle anew, hopefully with better outcomes.
The world of Race the Sands is vibrant and fully realized. The cities, the stables, the imperial palace as well as the temples – and especially the racetracks – feel nearly tangible, assailing the readers with a wonderful variety of smells, sounds and textures. The socio-political system, very similar to the Egyptian ruling system at the time of pharaohs, where the majority of power was gathered in the hands of the high priests’ caste, fits nicely in the desert setting. The court and its operations, as well as international relations based on an ambassadorial function seem like a thing from a different age entirely and remain vague and slightly baffling, but those are minor quibbles which ultimately do not detract from the pleasure of reading.
Race the Sands is indeed a spellbinding read. Despite the predictability of the plot, which for all its politicking and nefarious scheming remains pretty straightforward, and the double climax, which surprisingly felt slightly underwhelming and rushed, my attention was glued to the pages of this novel. I rooted for Raia to win not only her freedom, but also Shalla’s and Tamra’s, and her kehok’s, too. I cared for Lady Evara’s sorry financial state, and for Dar’s sorrow, and for Yorbel’s wide-eyed naivete, as Durst neatly bound all these various strands together into a truly Gordian knot.
My enjoyment of the novel stemmed mostly from the strength of believable, emotionally resonant characters. There are two main protagonists. Tamra the kehok trainer is desperate to keep her little family together while remaining afloat in the dangerous line of work that made her famous and then crushed her. Her bond with her daughter Shalla is one of the key relationships of the book, neatly showcasing Tamra’s character and motivations. The second protagonist, Raia, is a teenage runaway, driven to escape her greedy, uncaring parents and a cruel fiancé – even if the quest to become her own person requires her to try something as dangerous and mad as kehok racing. Raia grows throughout the novel from a desperate fugitive, trying to flee from a procession of bad choices, foisted upon her by others, into a determined young woman who makes her own path in life. These two characters easily dominate the pages of the book: they are strong but not invulnerable, fiercely caring yet fragile, full of anxiety and rage and bravery and tenderness. Both Tamra and Raia are instantly likeable; their path toward empowerment is relatable and one we can only root for; but the strength of their characters is anchored not only by their realistic makeup and development (which, in case of Tamra, is frankly nearly non-existent) but also by the relationships they form with one another and with a slew of characters populating the novel’s world. The good if naïve augur Yorbel; the emperor’s brother Dar, thrust against his will into the role of Becar’s ruler after the death of his brother; Tamra’s shrewd patron Lady Evara; Raia’s new friends, and her special kehok as well – all get their own moments in the limelight, together creating a believable and highly amiable if unlikely group of companions, swept by the momentous events into the main currents of Becar’s history.
And here is my first more solid complaint: the conclusions and resolutions in Race the Sands come way too easy and are much too neat for the amount of the earlier meandering, politicking and scheming. All-powerful villains are toppled with nary a command (though admittedly, not everyone could issue such an order), wars last a few lines in a book over 500 pages long, and the ending seems rather abrupt and understated. Or maybe not, because within that ending is a sentence that literally raised all my hackles and spoiled my reading experience.
“She was the one who would destroy the world, if that was what it took to save it.”
Maybe it sounds cheeky and perky and is supposed to showcase the strength of the main protagonist. Maybe the author experienced a sudden dearth of inspiration and settled for something that sounded strong and familiar. Whatever the reasons, I hope Durst used this sentence without the knowledge of its origin and earlier uses as its employment in the novel starkly undermines the message of empowerment, social justice and morality. The long-existing American figure of speech, “destroy in order to save,” appearing as early as 1908, judging by the oldest written records, was employed somewhat ironically throughout American history – a witty turn of phrase, used in legal decisions and opinion columns. It remained as such until the Vietnam war, when it was ostensibly utilized by one of officers (according to the AP reporter Peter Arnett) as a rationale for burning and destroying the Vietnamese town of Ben Tre. This slogan, so pithily describing the destructive tactic of scorched earth, had become a powerful anti-war slogan soon after – its power derived from its oxymoronic, dialectic nature, which clearly indicated the underlaying problematical logic. Nothing can be saved through its annihilation – unless one twists and changes the meaning of the words beyond recognition, only to suit one’s needs and one’s skewed perception of the world, assuaging the guilt and diffusing the responsibility for destruction. This figure of speech it is still widely used in political rhetoric by both sides of American political scene. And yet however prevalent may it be these days, and however faded in history are its roots, I strongly believe this figure of speech should not be used in a fantasy novel as a rationale for the main character’s actions. Taken out of its ironic context and treated seriously it becomes indefensible: its logic twisted; its morality – questionable; its hubris and folly – overwhelming.
We should be responsible for our words; we the book readers and bloggers know perfectly well what power a word can have. But we also need to remember history and learn from it; forgetting the past only leads to repeating its mistakes. And slogans, and clichés, have a special power of their own; whether one learns from Goebbels or Orwell, the facts remain: people generally prefer the known to the unknown, the easy to the difficult. When faced with a popular slogan, a cliché, a stereotype, we are less likely to consider its meaning and consequences – but we are more likely to remember and unthinkingly use it in the future.
It’s only one sentence; hopefully accidental, right at the end of a stand-alone novel, when the biggest writer’s worry is probably to end the book on a suitably emotional note. But to me, this thoughtless invocation of the vengeful and unapologetic spirit of militant might changed the way I perceived Race the Sands as a whole and stayed with me long after the names of the characters and places turned into a distant memory.
The final score is an amalgamation of both my sheer reading enjoyment and my later shock, when I discovered such an unwanted memento of the Vietnam War and the strange, dialectical ideology of that time in a novel where themes of inner morality, social justice and empowerment play such an important role.