Sarah Beth Durst, Race the Sands (2020)

Race the Sands

Author: Sarah Beth Durst

Title: Race the Sands

Format: Ebook

Pages: 544

Series: –

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.

Gates of Ishtar

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.

Relief_on_the_Ishtar_Gate_Pergamenmuseum

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.

Ben Tre

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.

Score: 6/10

56 thoughts on “Sarah Beth Durst, Race the Sands (2020)

  1. “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” I completely understand how you feel – I feel it quite often too. Everything counts in a book, even a “misplaced” sentence – especially a “lost” sentence.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you! 😀
      I know I might be particularly sensitive to this topic, having done years of research on the Vietnam War, but it seems to me that it’s a very important problem, especially in our increasingly jingoist times. What we say, and how we say it, matters! (or at least should ;)).

      Like

  2. I’m familiar with the original line, and though I don’t know how it is taken in other places around the world, in the US it has some strong anti-war connotations for many people, as demonstrators during the Vietnam War started using that quote in their signs to protest the war. To be honest, I can’t remember which part it was used in the book, but giving Durst the benefit of the doubt, I thought in the end the main character was quite regretful and part of her hated herself for what she did to the enemy. More likely you’re probably right though, the author just thought the line sounded edgy to end the book with, but at the very least I didn’t feel that Tamra took any joy in the victory. Great analysis!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. It’s just after she’s done recriminating herself, and after others who hunt the escaped kehok praise her as a hero, when she rides her kehok in the desert, so pretty much the very end of the book. I think it was supposed to be an uplifting message – it definitely didn’t have that ironic feel of an anti-war slogan in this context 😉

      Thanks! 😊

      Like

  3. piotrek

    It’s interesting that this one comment lowered your score so much. I wonder… should we perhaps treat it as something character claims, that she might regret/change her mind later? A protagonist’s sentiment, not author-endorsed solution to all problems?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Ah well, I’ll put it in context: she is responsible for the wholesale destruction of the city temple and the murder of a whole high priest cabal (yes, they were guilty 😜), dramatic swing in the balance of power, bringing all of in the hands of the emperor and making the country a benevolent Autocracy as a result, and later she’s also (partly unintentionally) responsible for a bloody murder of a whole invading army. We could discuss the concept of just war here, as it was clearly the author’s intention to make the killings morally justifiable, and the protagonist feels guilt and remorse afterwards. But this sentence is the one that I felt makes her feel good with herself again. With her trauma concluded, she seemingly willingly accepts her past and future role as a ruthless killer-by-proxy (though when we talk about thousands, I’m not sure killer is the right word). So yeah, it didn’t feel like she might be changing her mind anytime soon 😜

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Authors morally justifying war is morally suspect. Not that killing is never justified, but wars generally have nothing to do with morals, so authors trying to frame it that way seem naive, at best, and at worst, complicit in upholding a heroic, moral veneer over lethal power plays.

        Now that I think about it, Tolkien does it too, but at least Mordor and Sauron are symbols of evil, however binary simple (and problematic too) that might be.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I think wars have a great deal to do with morals, actually – just not in the way the authors usually try to convince us of 😉. The sheer excision of commonly upheld morality in war and the efforts to substitute it with something more lenient, the fact that war is so painstakingly excluded from the regular life of societies (as evidenced for example by the fact that soldiers are required to do things they’d be punished for in times of peace), shows us that wars are inextricably linked with morality, despite the centuries of efforts to uncouple the two. But the efforts work, to an extent. If societies truly applied morality to war, overwhelming majority of wars would not be fought. But yes, I am very sensitive to the offhand, unthinking praise of heroism that usually totally missed the point and creates a completely false image of what war really is.

          Tolkien does it too, indeed, and also employs the tried axiom of just war, but he at least shows that war has no true winners – everybody loses, more or less. And like you say, he introduced Sauron as a higher being, an incarnation of evil, which unopposed would conquer the whole world and turn it into a nightmare of slavery and pain.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. I will second Suzy’s joy in having learned something I was not aware of: that’s one of the advantages of the book-lovers’ community, the possibility of wandering through unexplored territories of fiction and finding connections with reality and history we would otherwise have missed. Race the Sands is on my TBR and now I know I will read it “armed” with this detail that might shed unexpected light on my vision of the story…
    Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for reading! 😊
      As I said to Tammy, I realize I might be oversensitive with regards to this topic – and yet, to me it is connected to the broader theme of our responsibility for words and sentiments. I feel we ought to know where the slogans, cliches, sayings or common lines of thought we use come from, as they usually have a rich past.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re welcome! 😀 It’s a catchphrase that seems really ubiquitous in the States – so much so that I think people don’t really pay attention to what it actually says. And once you start thinking about it, well – at least for me it sounds unsettling, a rather fundamentalist view of what is important and what isn’t. I really think the author didn’t know that whole history behind it when she wrote it here; still, despite the fact that it’s such a small thing I felt it was jarring.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I love how a whole character’s mindset summarized in one sentence killed a reading experience (not completely though). I have seen that sentence COUNTLESS times. It was used by the villain in my recent movie experience… It’s always something that gravitates around this idea that you need to burn a forest to grow the whole thing again, or cleanse a world before making new again. I do wonder what I would have taken home as a message in this case though. Especially as a stand-alone story. If it was intentional, maybe the author wanted us to reflect on our stance on the subject too. Make us regret rooting for the protagonist or something? If that was the case, I think I could maybe appreciate the idea. Otherwise, I completely understand your stance and appreciate that it was taken into consideration in your rating for this book! Fantastic review as always, Ola! 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you as always, Lashaan! 😀

      Yes, this phrase has been so ubiquitous that it could well be used – and was used – both literally and ironically. But in this case I didn’t get the feeling that it was there so that the readers would question the protagonist’s actions – on the contrary, it was a feel-good moment for her, once she got rid of her guilt at killing-by-proxy a whole army of people. The author took some pains to make her morally in the right, heavily drawing on the concept of the just war – the nation-state of the protagonist was the one attacked and in need of defense. So as much as I’d love to have it there as food for thought and a reality check for the readers, I walked away with a feeling the author’s intention was completely opposite ;).

      Liked by 1 person

  6. When I wrote “have nothing to do with morality” I meant indeed the start of wars. Individual conduct of people during wars is indeed tied to morals, as you say. I overcharged a bit, but I think we agree.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh yeah, absolutely! I was just being a sarcastic stickler, and you didn’t deserve it – sorry! 😅 I used your sentence to elaborate on a topic that is very close to my heart. I spent a long time researching wars and war trauma, which is directly linked to morality. So we totally agree here, Bart!
      Btw, thanks for bringing that topic up, because I felt like I was getting overly enthusiastic here, especially considering the source material, which is essentially a YA fantasy – but then, who’s more susceptible to the heroic myth of war than the young? 😉

      Like

      1. No prob! Does that research explain your fondneds for Black Company?

        Have you read Slaughterhouse 5 btw? One of my favorite books.

        Also, very strong, but not sure how the translation works: My Little War by Louis Paul Boon. Also his Chapel Road (1953) and the sequel Summer in Termuren are brilliant books on the aftermath of WW2, and among the best books I’ve ever read. Again, not sure about their translation.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yes, it does, actually! 😄 I wrote my PhD on post-war individual and social trauma after the Vietnam War and War on Terror in the US.

          Slaughterhouse Five is one of the books I value very highly – maybe not exactly my favorite, but it is a book that had a huge influence on me. A bit similar in some respects is a favorite of mine, Miller Jr’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. Catch 22 is not bad either 😉

          I heard of My Little War, haven’t read it yet though – will get it on my TBR, thanks! There are some absolutely stunning books on the Vietnam War experience written by veterans and journalists I can recommend if you’re interested.

          Like

          1. All right! 😀
            Philip Caputo, A Rumour of War
            Michael Herr, Dispatches
            Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
            J. Glenn Gray, The Warriors. Reflections on Men in Battle (that’s actually a philosopher-soldier’s take on WWII)
            Gustav Hasford, The Short-timers (this is the basis for Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, and it’s available online for free)
            Chris Hedges, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (he’s a war reporter frankly talking about addiction to war and the imagery of war maintained by nation-states; his book was an inspiration for Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, but the movie is nothing like the book)

            Yeah, I could go on, but I figure that’s more than enough already 😉 You might take a look at them and pick something that is of interest to you – my favorites are Herr and Caputo, but they are very raw and emotionally tasking. The more theoretical ones are Gray and Hedges, and Hasford is the most like Slaughterhouse Five in its ironical, shockingly brutal frankness.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. thanks a lot, will look into those! I actually hate being pointed to good books in a way 🙂 my time is so limited, the amount of stuff to read so vast. it’s frustrating.

            Liked by 1 person

          3. I have Goodreads friends’ reviews for nearly all those books – and those tell me that Herr and Caputo are indeed the ones to check out first. Hedges might be a bit too preachy for my taste it seems.

            I now remember reading a short story by O’Brain by the way – On the rainy river. Quite good, we had our English students read it for a few years a decade ago.

            Liked by 1 person

          4. Perfect! If you want a short one, go for Hasford. I think I should have a PDF copy somewhere from the time I found it online – let me know if you’d like me to check if it’s the case and send it to you.

            Liked by 1 person

  7. buriedinprint

    How interesting! Like another commenter said above, your discussion of this, and the way that the character’s experiences fit with the final udeclaration, make me feel like I actually want to read the book to see how it unfolds (and abruptly concludes) for myself. (But I likely won’t…I also feel like I have a monstrous list of long fantasy novels on my TBR already, with less complicated motivations for wanting to read them! LOL) Does it make you wonder now, if you were to reread yourself, if you might see other instances in which that kind of after-the-fact rationalization might surface, but you didn’t notice it when you were simply caught up in the reading? Like you’ve said, it’s hard to unsee something that rattles you like this, so I can imagine that it would have you rethinking the entire experience.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Interesting questions! I’ve been asking myself that, and I think the problem here is that I was willing to forgive certain simplifications before – it all was within the accepted limits of the genre: there are enemies, they are bad, they need to be dealt with, etc. The just war setup and the removal of responsibility are evident, but still within the norm for YA, I’d say.

      (a side-note:) If I were to define YA I would say that it’s simply a Buildungsroman with simplified motivations and outcomes.

      And this book fits this mold perfectly – up till this sentence. I mean, when you read it without prior knowledge about origins of this phrase, I think it won’t bother you at all. It fits the development of the protagonist, and it sounds plucky enough. It’s only when you look at it closely you may see this dangerously fundamentalist mentality. And yes, once I saw it, I started questioning the whole experience. Is this the way we want next generations to think about war?

      I should probably amend my review now that I had thought this all through, and indicate that this one sentence was simply a catalyst for a whole thought process that ultimately made me reconsider the way I view this book ;). Ah, but a review is also an image frozen in time – a good excuse for the lazy 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      1. buriedinprint

        Hahaha, well maybe we are lazy sometimes. But it’s also really useful, I think, to see how other readers think about and reconsider what they read. And especially in these times, when opinions often seem to be so polarized, it’s helpful to remind ourselves and others that one can revisit even recent and fresh opinions, contemplate them anew and, sometimes dramatically alter our ideas and expectations. Sure, in some ways, it’s just a story. In other ways, it’s how we see and imagine our world. I enjoyed your post exactly as it is!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Wise words, hear, hear! I think one of the main strengths of blogging is the fact that we can meet and exchange opinions in an entirely kind, positive way – where curiosity about the others’ perspective stems from the need to know and not to triumph.
          And thank you! 😊

          Liked by 1 person

  8. This one doesn’t sound like its one for me (and not just because its YA … although that doesn’t help its case 😉). You mentioned how the villains get toppled without too much effort, that is the kind of thing that saps enjoyment I’ve already experienced, entirely away from a book for me. I’m a harsh one haha

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah, I don’t think you’d enjoy this one, Aaron! 😀 Though your inexplicable love for Mia Corvere, oh gentle friend, may yet prove me wrong!
      Yes, this ending was disappointing; though to be fair, this book was mostly about monster racing and the toppling of the empire’s political structures was only a side-plot, lol 😉

      Liked by 1 person

        1. LOL, that would be something! 😀 Maybe you could write something about Boubacar’s teenage years? I’m pretty sure I could find some similarities to Mia 😉

          Like

  9. Such an enlightening review, Ola. I do like this insight into the way your mind works.

    I admit, I didn’t know this phrase, but your thoughts on how such references can happen raise some interesting questions for writers. Durst wouldn’t be the first author to accidentally borrow from a tricky source, but I always wonder whether we shouldn’t also look to the publishers in cases like this.

    Was it self-published, maybe? Otherwise, surely it would have been read by more than one reader before making it to publication day. I wonder why they didn’t flag it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Cath! 🙂

      You are right. There were probably editors, beta readers, etc. And she’s not a new author, either. This book was published by a big publishing house – HarperCollins, which makes such a slip all the more interesting.

      My current working theory is that for the majority of the American society this phrase has become something so transparent and obvious that it’s no longer noticed. And even when it is noticed, it’s mostly in the context of current political bickering, not history – or even its actual meaning. And I thought maybe it’s time to come back to the source and raise awareness around this particular phrase, as I feel it has an unusually destructive potential.

      Thanks for reading! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I confess I was completely unaware of this phrase and so it wouldn’t have registered with me at all and I would probably have read it on a much more superficial level – who am I kidding, I mainly read on a very superficial, pure enjoyment level. But, my own shallowness and enjoyment seeking aside I found this and all the comments incredibly interesting and very thought provoking and I don’t think you’re being oversensitive at all. If that sentence jarred you then that’s how it made you feel and it can’t be taken away. It would be interesting to read this now based on your thoughts although I probably won’t have the time to fit it in tbh.
    Lynn 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks! 😀
      Your thoughts are much appreciated! 😊

      I’m always putting way too much stock in things that were designed as entertainment (especially comic-based movies! 🤣) But I feel that as entertainment is often at the center of our culture, and it’s one aspect that we mostly interact with, we should feel responsible for its contents – especially as we often accept some things at face value, not giving them a second thought.

      This was one of those instances 😉 I’m pretty sure even the author or the editors didn’t blink twice seeing this phrase in the book as it’s so ingrained in American culture that by now it feels natural. But then, I guess it’s up to us, readers, to find such things and make wonderful discussions about them! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Indeed. And you created a wonderful discussion with your post. It’s another great thing about books. Each read is individual to the reader and can become something more than simply the story. Sometimes when I read a book I’m very aware that there’s an underlying message but at the same time other readers are enjoying the same book simply for the story it’s telling and I love that side of reading and the way we can all take something different from our reading experience.
        Lynn 😁

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yes, that’s very true! I do love that blogging gives me an opportunity to talk with others not only about books but also about many different things besides the books – and that we find friends and topics all around the world! 😄

          Liked by 1 person

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