Book Review: Race the Sands by Sarah Beth Durst
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 5 of 5 stars
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Harper Voyager (April 21, 2020)
Length: 544 pages
I’d be shocked if Race the Sands doesn’t end up topping my list of favorite reads at the end of the year. I mean, I’ve been following Sarah Beth Durst for a while and I love her work, but wow, she’s certainly outdone herself this time. There’s literally nothing I disliked about this book, a spectacular effusion of excitement, adventure, and really wild things!
Welcome to Becar, a world where reincarnation exists. While those with good, clean souls can be rewarded by being reborn as humans, only the purest of the pure can become augurs, gifted with the ability to read the auras of others and determine their fate. Individuals with flawed auras can expect to reincarnate as animals—a jackal, a turtle, or a bird perhaps—and those whose souls are more corrupted might even end up a slug. All you can do is hope that your next life will give you a better chance at changing your fate.
That said, for the evildoers whose crimes are so unforgivable that their spirits are forever tainted, there is no redemption. These wretched men and women are cursed to come back as kehoks—chimeric monsters whose forms combine the traits of many different aniemals—and forever after, they will never be reborn as anything else. Their only chance at breaking this cycle is a special charm, created by the augurs and gifted to the champion of the kehok races that all of Becar flock to see each year. While it is impossible to completely tame a kehok, gutsy individuals who are bold and determined enough can impose their wills on these beasts long enough to ride them and compete in th races, earning fame and fortune too if they win.
Tamra Verlas used to be one these champion riders, her name known to every fan. Although she is now retired from the racing scene, she still trains riders for the money to put her young daughter through the expensive augur training at the temple. However, an unfortunate incident with one of her students last season has all but ruined Tamra’s reputation, forcing her to scout her own rider and kehok to enter in the races. She ends up finding both at the market—a fearsome lion-like kehok, freshly captured by a hunter, as well as Raia, a young runaway who needs a place to lie low from her abusive parents. Raia has never ridden a kehok before, but she is desperate for a job, and Tamra is also desperate for a new student.
Meanwhile, an undercurrent of anxiety threatens the future of the realm as the royal augurs have thus far been unable to locate the reincarnated soul of their late emperor, resulting in the delay of his successor’s coronation. Without a leader, Becar is vulnerable to attack from its enemies, who are even now readying their armies to invade. But while it may be unthinkable, and sacrilegious to even suggest it, there could be another explanation why the palace has been having trouble finding the emperor’s current incarnation. After all, while the augurs can be thorough in surveying all creatures, they would never look to a kehok for the soul of their illustrious emperor, whose aura should not have been so corrupted. In the end, only one courageous augur named Yorbel is willing to go against the grain and put a theory to the test.
Truly, my absolute love for this book cannot be contained! I’ll start with the premise and the world-building, which made this book so delightful and captivating. While familiar tropes abound in Race the Sands, Durst’s talent is to write them in a way that made it all feel new and fresh. Racing motifs feature prominently, obviously, but there is also the theme of the disgraced trainer who needs to make a champion out of an inexperienced rookie, as well as a good dash of the sort of creature/rider bonding trope you would find in Temeraire or How to Train your Dragon. Set to the backdrop of the desert world of Becar and the spiritual beliefs of its people though, these ideas and concepts are given new life. The author also adds a few twists of her own so that the direction of this tale as well as its resolution will contain plenty of surprises.
Speaking of which, the storytelling was superb. I’ve always appreciated the crossover appeal of Durst’s books, and Race the Sands also has that same quality, written in an easy flowing style that will make YA fans feel right at home while not turning off readers of adult fantasy. Of course, the novel’s characters also help with this, since we have one protagonist in her teens, and another in her middle-aged years who is a mother to boot. Both are well-written and impressively developed, portrayed with their individual motivations, genuine personalities, and in-depth backstories. In particular, I want to give a nod to the way the author depicts motherhood, and in her books I’ve read that feature mom protagonists (the Queen of Renthia series, for example), they are always strong, ferociously protective and loving women who would go to the ends of the earth for their children. Tamra has a young daughter but she also takes Raia under her wing in this one, and this amazing woman is just so solid, competent and badass that it is no wonder that she was my favorite.
Other noteworthy characters include Lady Evara (you will see why once you read this and meet her), who surprised me on several occasions, and Yorbel with his gentle demeanor and wisdom. A few others also added interest and depth to the story with their roles, such as Prince Dar and the Ranir ambassador giving insight into Becar’s political troubles. And of course, who can forget Raia’s magnificent lion? While he may be a monstrous creature with no spoken lines or POV, his indomitable presence can still be felt throughout the novel, and overall I adored the concept of kehoks and the way they come in so many different shapes and sizes.
And yet, I still feel words aren’t enough to express just how much I loved this book! All I can say is, you really must try it to see for yourself. My expectations were already sky-high considering how much I’ve enjoyed Sarah Beth Durst’s other novels in the past, but she still managed to blow them all away with this one. Truly, her characterization, storytelling skills and world-building ideas are unparalleled, and with Race the Sands, she has pretty much raised the bar for all the books I’ll read for the rest of the year.