Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst
I’d never heard of Sarah Beth Durst before Michael Ann Dobbs reviewed her latest novel, Vessel, for io9. While I do end up reading a lot of young adult fiction, I don’t especially pay attention to that market, electing instead to float around speculative fiction spaces and fellow omnivorous book bloggers online, so something like Drink Slay Love was way off my radar. But Dobbs’ review made me immediately add it to the spreadsheet—not so much because of glowing praise, but because of that premise. Somewhere in time, child Clare is throwing a tantrum and claiming that Durst stole her idea (from an awful fantasy manuscript squirreled away on a long-dead computer? Shut up, child Clare). I, as an adult and actual person, merely appreciate what Durst did with a concept I’ve always found intriguing.
Vessel opens with Liyana, one of the titular vessels, facing her ultimate purpose in life—sacrificing herself so that the goddess Bayla can inhabit her body and help her people, as is done in every one of the desert clans every century. It’s particularly necessary this century, as the desert is facing the greatest drought in recorded history. Liyana has spent her life taking the utmost care of her body and reconciling herself to her purpose, but when the ceremony ends, the goddess doesn’t come. The clan blames Liyana and leaves her in the desert, reasoning that she’ll either die or Bayla will come to her later. Instead, the trickster god Korbyn of the Raven Clan, whose ceremony was successful, finds Liyana and recruits her to discover the whereabouts of the missing gods who never came to their vessels. But neither of them can imagine that an empire might stand between them and their (fellow) gods…
Talk about a hook. Jenny (of Jenny’s Books) recently posted about how a book cannot only be about prose, because then that means that prose has to be so dazzlingly stellar that it can make up for a total lack of story. Vessel has much the opposite problem. In a speculative fiction landscape riddled with books spreading their plots thin in order to constitute a series (Deborah Harkness’ All Souls trilogy immediately leaps to mind), Vessel is not only a standalone novel, but utterly packed with story. There’s always something happening, and it’s always something pertinent to the story at hand: a young woman struggling with the demands of her very tangible faith in order to save her people. There are a few chapters from the perspective of the young emperor also seeking to save his people from the Great Drought, and even those interweave nicely, to the point that I almost wish he’d been more of a character.
But Vessel lacks particularly interesting or pleasing prose. It’s readable, in the addictive way many young adult authors have mastered (I tucked into bed early, expecting to catch up on my sleep, and ended up reading into the night), but the two entries that made into my commonplace book are a joke and Liyana burning with righteous rage when the emperor criticizes her people’s way of life as barbaric. There’s nothing wrong with incredibly plain prose—it comes off as quite cinematic here—but it’s compounded by the fact that the character voices are sometimes a little too modern. It begins quite well, but once Korbyn and Liyana become familiar, they fall into speech patterns I associate far more with modern teenagers. I think if it had been consistent throughout, I wouldn’t have minded (let’s be real, I adore A Knight’s Tale), but because it’s not, it feels jarring, especially with the epic turn Vessel takes in its third act.
And then there’s the love triangle. It almost feels like love triangles are inevitable in young adult fiction featuring female protagonists, and the one here is particularly shoehorned. Liyana and Korbyn have informed chemistry instead of organic chemistry, and when Bayla turned up… I ended up rolling my eyes because she immediately became a catty, jealous lover. (I hate love triangles where the narrative screams at you which side you’re supposed to be on by demonizing someone.) This is exacerbated by the fact that Durst is showing the deities as not terribly sympathetic, but it just makes Bayla and Liyana’s relationship fall a little flat. Plus, the ending renders it moot, which made me wonder why it was brought up in the first place and what replaces it wasn’t explored more. It’s quite a misstep.
But the worldbuilding saves it. It’s not terribly elaborate, but, as Dobbs points out, the novel is about Liyana—and the other vessels and gods—coming to terms with the demands of their faith. The ultimate villain is not someone trying to destroy the world, but someone who sees the desert faith as inherently oppressive and murderous, and wants to save his people from what he thinks is great injustice. And the gods, at one point, are pointed out to have been human constructs in the first place. At its heart, Vessel is an adventure novel, but its spiritual questions—after all, this is a book where the protagonist’s success would mean her death—make it a little deeper. Oh, and, while it should go without saying, there’s maybe one white dude in this entire book. It even passes the Bechdel Test, despite the weird, eye-rolling love triangle. It’s got its flaws, but if this was what I was dealing with for the worst of young adult fiction, we’d be in very good waters indeed. (Instead, there’s Hush, Hush.)
Bottom line: Vessel boasts a fascinating story that utterly fills its four-hundred plus pages, with readable, if quite plain and occasionally too modern, prose. The apparently required love triangle is frustrating, but the worldbuilding and spiritual questions are quite interesting. With a wonderfully diverse cast and an A+ on the Bechdel Test, Vessel represents what I wish most young adult novels tried to be.
I rented this book from the public library.