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.

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Yoon Ha Lee, Ninefox Gambit (2016)

Ninefox Gambit

Author: Yoon Ha Lee

Title: Ninefox Gambit

Format: Paperback

Pages: 512

Series: Machineries of Empire #1

This year started out very well – at least with regards to my SF reading 😉 I have only had the misfortune of reading one dud during these first two months of 2020, and it was fantasy, which I’ll definitely scour in a scathing review sometime in the future – but as this review deals with a violent military SF of the highest order, I shall focus on that with all the delight and diligence it deserves.

Ninefox Gambit, the first installment in Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy, presents a world in which math is the language of magic. Or, more precisely, where math begets magic – as long as there are people who absolutely believe in this possibility. The magic of math – of geometry and probability, of statistics and analysis – is a lethal one. The unforgiving inevitability of right angles and straight lines alters the fabric of the universe, creating temporal pockets of reality where life becomes impossible. Radiation, mutation, extreme temperatures – whatever you like, whatever you deem necessary, is at the tips of your fingers. The only thing you need to do is to have enough soldiers to make a meaningful formation and keep it despite constant winnowing by the opposite forces – and, of course, social belief.

Here’s where things become tricky. The power of the mathematical magic is based on popular belief. It can be upheld only through meticulously calculated and obsessively observed rituals and modes of behavior dictated by a uniformly accepted calendar: such and such number of days in a week; such and such day a sacred one; such and such rituals falling on certain dates; such and such number of human sacrifices made when occasion demands. The belief must be absolute and unquestioned; it must form the foundation of the people’s worldview, must be inculcated from the start and rigorously, continuously reinforced. Otherwise you’re bound to find calendrical rot at the core of your perfectly oiled and ticking empire – a dissident movement, a desperate revolution against the totalitarian society which treats an individual only as a replaceable cog in the machine.

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