Sarah Beth Durst’s latest novel is a direct spiritual successor to the work of Tamora Pierce, whose novels gave many readers their first experience with fantasy and adventure and planted the seed that—if you were determined enough—you could do anything.
Race the Sands introduces us to the arid land of Becar, a land which is ruled by questions of the soul. Reincarnation is real and religious priests, known as augurs, can see your future incarnation by examining your aura. The lucky and kind are reborn as humans, herons and other noble creatures; the less lucky return as lower animals. But for the truly monstrous, only one fate awaits: eternal life as a deadly monster known as a kehok. Redemption is only possible for kehoks fierce and fast enough to win the Races.
But for Tamra and Raia, winning the Races has nothing to do with spiritual redemption. It is kehok trainer Tamra’s only chance to prevent financial ruin and to prevent the augurs from taking her daughter away. And Raia, a runaway desperate to escape an arranged marriage to a known abuser, has a chance to buy her own freedom should she win the Races as a rider. Even if that means taking a chance on a strange kehok that could just as easily kill its rider as win.
Race the Sands gives us some expected archetypes: the grizzled, injured veteran, the emperor-to-be who is not quite ready for the job, the plucky young heroine who must overcome the odds and win the day. What it also gives us, however, is a story that takes these worn tropes and turns them into something unique. Our grizzled veteran is also a caring mother, and our plucky heroine sometimes shrinks in the face of danger. Durst’s prose gives readers a window into the inner lives of her characters and the difficult decisions they must make, turning what could be worn tropes into lively, well-developed characters.
It would be easy for a story set in a world where many are obsessed with the purity of their souls to veer towards facile interpretations of morality and human behavior. But like all great world builders, Durst thinks through how people would interact with her world carefully and does not create characters who are pure saints or who are irredeemable. While Tamra, Raia and their associates do occasionally worry about the state of their own souls, they are still people. They tell white lies about jam being good when it actually isn’t and worry about their families. Some are downright foul, for even the threat of a monstrous afterlife can’t always change human nature.
For readers who long for one more story of Tortall or the Winding Circle, consider Race the Sands as a new, grown-up alternative. Durst’s latest novel, full of daring races and twisting halls of intrigue, will surprise and delight even as it feels comforting and familiar.