Sarah Beth Durst, author of the young adult vampire action comedy Drink, Slay, Love, has a new novel out called Vessel — it's a standalone fantasy that takes place in an entirely new world. Liyana's nomadic desert clan is waiting desperately for their goddess to rejoin them, even though it will cost Liyanna her life.
Liyana has been designated her clan's "vessel," a young adult who will sacrifice their life so a god can inhabit their body. It's not much of a spoiler to say that Goat Clan's goddess fails to show up. Who does show up, after her clan has abandoned Liyana to die in the desert, is Korbyn, a trickster god who already inhabits his vessel. The two then journey together across the desert in effort to rescue the missing goddess.
As they travel across the waste of sand, dotted with oases, they encounter mundane and fantastic threats to their survival. There are even salt worms that feel like an homage to Dune. As Liyana and Korbyn swap folk tales and look out for each other they fall into a sweet romance, complicated by the fact that he's actually with the goddess who Liyana was supposed to sacrifice herself for. Liyana's practical nature and Korbyn's willingness to break the rules occasionally put them at odds, but their novel situation more often leads them to work together.
As they come into contact with other clans who have also lost their gods, we learn more about the gods and the culture of this loose coalition of clans. Liyana and Korbyn's chapters are occasionally interrupted with chapters about the emperor of nearby land that has been blighted by the same multi-year drought that threatens the desert clans. These two stories eventually, and satisfyingly, tie together. What they all discover leads Liyana and the gods to question the underlying assumptions of the entire system.
The book's writing is best when the characters are telling folk tales. Durst manages to capture something that feels organic, familiar and a touch formal. The initial chapters about the emperor have an almost fairy-tale quality to them which is also really fun. The rest of the time, the writing is more straight-forward. There were a few relationships I wanted Durst to flesh out a little more and the book ends with a sort blockbuster-type battle that felt a touch overwrought.
The religious framework is what really elevates the book from simply being a fun adventure with a hot guy in the desert. Initially, it seems like the story might be about the failure of religion as Liyana confronts a goddessless future. This doesn't last long, but it's clear the book isn't about to let even a fictional religion off the hook too easily. Liyana has been raised to believe that she should sacrifice herself and that doing so will protect her family and clan. This belief permeates all of her actions and the entire narrative. Any book that gets the reader to hope that the main character will be successful and die, is working in difficult emotional and moral territory. The villain is also morally complex – his motivations are believable, understandable and, from his point of view, entirely moral.
Vessel is straight up YA, but it's got the sort of moral heft that plenty of YA books only aspire too. Books about the value of individuality and bravery in the face of dystopia are great, but books that ask question about the value of the individual in the versus the value of the group are just as important and in shorter supply.