Once every hundred years, the desert clans’ gods come to walk among them. One young man or woman from each clan is chosen to serve as the vessel for that clan’s deity. The human soul dies and returns to the Dreaming, while the god takes over the body. Now incarnate in the vessel’s body, the god works magic to help keep the clan alive in the harsh conditions of the desert.
Liyana has known for years that she is destined to be the vessel for the goddess Bayla. But Bayla never shows up. Believing the goddess has found Liyana unworthy, her clan abandons her to the elements, but soon she is found by the incarnate god Korbyn, who has shocking news for her. Five of the desert deities have been magically imprisoned, including Bayla, hence why she never appeared to claim Liyana’s body.
Now Liyana must help Korbyn find the other four vessels, traveling across the desert to the encampments of the other four clans, each of which reacts in a different way to its deity’s non-appearance. Once they’ve done that, they must learn where the deities are trapped and free them. This mission returns purpose to Liyana’s life, but it’s a bittersweet one, because if she succeeds it means sacrificing herself to Bayla. What’s more, Korbyn has personal reasons to wish for Bayla’s return.
Liyana evolves as a character throughout the novel. She starts out resigned to her fate (if not quite ready for it), actually becomes pretty ruthless for a little while in her determination to get the other vessels on board with the plan, and then begins to realize she doesn’t want to die. And to wonder if everything she’s been taught about the gods is accurate. The eventual resolution is carefully set up; Sarah Beth Durst gradually introduces similar situations to the reader so that the plan the characters try at the climax feels like a believable next step rather than a deus ex machina.
Durst spins a plot full of adventure and poignant tragedy (there are a couple of deaths that just knocked the wind out of me) and hope, and sets it in a wonderfully creative world. It’s a world not only of gods wearing human flesh, but sand-wolves and giant salt-worms and sky serpents made of glass that can cut through anything. The prose fully engages the senses, bringing to life the beauty of a gown or the terrifying maw of a sand-wolf. And at times it’s funny:
“Bayla, is this how you’ll kill me?” she asked out loud. “There are easier ways. You could send another snake. I am sorry I ate the first one.” Hearing her own voice made her feel braver. “He was delicious, though.”
There’s a romantic element to the novel, even a few overlapping love triangles, but Durst keeps a good balance between romance and the rest of the story. Then, in the romantic relationship that turns out to be the central one, I’m reminded of the romance from Durst’s earlier book Ice in that the most important aspect of the relationship is the partnership between the characters in their pursuit of a shared goal, rather than the swoony feelings of infatuation (which are fun, of course, but won’t sustain a relationship in the long term).
Vessel is one of the best and most creative novels I’ve read this year. It swept me away, kept me on the edge of my seat, and occasionally punched me in the gut. I highly recommend it to YA and adult readers.