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Friday, May 29, 2020

Race The Sands by Sarah Beth Durst (reviewed by Caitlin Grieve)

Official Author Website
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OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFO: Sarah Beth Durst is the award-winning author of twenty fantasy books for kids, teens, and adults, including The Girl Who Could Not Dream, Drink Slay Love, and The Queens of Renthia series. She won an ALA Alex Award and a Mythopoeic Fantasy Award and has been a finalist for SFWA's Andre Norton Award three times. She is a graduate of Princeton University, where she spent four years studying English, writing about dragons, and wondering what the campus gargoyles would say if they could talk. Sarah lives in Stony Brook, New York, with her husband, her children, and her ill-mannered cat.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: Life, death, and rebirth -- in Becar, everyone knows that who you are in this life will determine what you are in your next life. The augurs can read your fate in your aura: hawk, heron, tortoise, jackal, human. Armed with that knowledge, you can change your destiny with the choices you make, both in this life and your next. But for the darkest individuals, there is no redemption: you come back as a kehok, a monster, and you will always be a kehok for the rest of time.

Unless you can win the Races.

As a professional trainer, Tamra was an elite kehok rider. Then a tragic accident on the track shattered her confidence, damaged her career, and left her nearly broke. Now Tamra needs the prize money to prevent the local temple from taking her daughter away from her, and that means she must once again find a winning kehok . . . and a rider willing to trust her.

Raia is desperate to get away from her domineering family and cruel fiancé. As a kehok rider, she could earn enough to buy her freedom. But she can't become good enough to compete without a first-rate trainer. Impressed by the inexperienced young woman's determination, Tamra hires Raia and pairs her with a strange new kehok with the potential to win -- if he can be tamed.

But in this sport, if you forget you're riding on the back of a monster, you die. Tamra and Raia will work harder than they ever thought possible to win the deadly Becaran Races -- and in the process, discover what makes this particular kehok so special.

FORMAT/INFO: Race The Sands was published in North America on April 21st, 2020. It is 544 pages spread over 37 chapters. It is told in third person across multiple viewpoints. This is a standalone book and is published in paperback, ebook, and audiobook formats by Harper Voyager books.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Fear for your immortal soul is a very real problem in the land of Becar, a realm where those who die are reincarnated based on the goodness of their soul. Most likely, you'll come back as an animal; a rare few are pure enough to come back as a human. But the worst of the worst come back as kehoks, monstrous creatures that are random amalgamations of different creatures. Kehoks live to kill and destroy, and will always reincarnate as nothing but a kehok. But that hasn't stopped the brave and foolhardy from capturing and training kehoks to run in the annual races. The prize money is enormous, and the kehok who wins the grand championship is granted a charm that will allow them to reincarnate into a human upon their death.

This year, trainer Tamra desperately needs to sponsor a rider who can win the kehok races. Her daughter is training to be an auger, a gifted individual who can read a person's aura and determine what kind of creature they will reincarnate into. But auger school is expensive, and if Tamra can't pay the fees, the augers will assume full custody of her daughter "for the good of the country," and Tamra will never see her daughter again. So when she finds Raia, a runaway teen with the fire of a person who has nothing to lose, she goes against her better judgement and agrees to train her. And as if the two women weren't already under enough pressure, they soon discover that their kehok is particularly unusual - and its existence soon embroils them in a power struggle for the fate of the country.

Race The Sands is an engaging fantasy tale that raises all kinds of questions about morality and what drives a person to be "good." Becar's entire system of power is based upon the system of reincarnation and the fear of what your soul will come back as. The wealthy maintain control because it is custom to believe that their wealth is a reward from the gods for the purity of their souls - and the fact that aura readings are private keeps anything from assailing this myth. Augers are those who live unblemished lives and should be given nothing but respect, but does their ability to see your future give them the right to destroy families in their quest for new members? And Tamra raises an excellent point - she won't remember her past life in her next body, so why should she do anything except what is best for her right now in this moment? Shouldn't she be good just because it's the right thing to do, not simply because she might come back as a toad in her next life? These are the kinds of questions kicked around in a story that begins with a very simple premise of "monster-racing."

Tamra and Raia are two excellent female leads that anchor the adventure. Tamra has a core of iron will power that allows her to control kehoks, and she's the main moral compass of the book. She's blunt enough to ask questions without concern for rank or etiquette, and pushes an auger who falls into their company to reexamine his beliefs. Raia, on the other hand, has a spark born of desperation as she escapes from a controlling family, and has to overcome her own self doubts over what she believes is a lifetime of failures. Along with Tamra's daughter Shalla, a family unit is built that has to weather all kinds of storms (literal and psychological).

The central thrust of Race The Sands is familiar, but no less enjoyable for it. You have your rookie rider, your curmudgeonly veteran trainer, and the horse monster that everyone believes is untrainable, fighting as the underdogs to win the grand championship race. But there's an extra layer to Race The Sands that was a surprising and welcome addition to what I was promised on the book jacket. Yes, this is largely a book about monster-racing, but there's also a level of political intrigue. There's tension in the capitol city revolving around the soon-to-be-crowned emperor, and those tensions and the attempted manipulations of those involved soon spill into the races themselves, as the capitol is where the final championship race is held. The stakes elevate just beyond Tamra and Raia's personal problems and become about the fate of the country as a whole.

One thing I had to get used to in this book is that it has a magic system that isn't visually flashy. If you aren't an auger, you can't see auras, and if there wasn't a POV character from an actual auger, we'd have to go on faith that their proclamations about who reincarnates into what are true - which, to be fair, is one of the points of the book. It makes me almost wish that we had only been given POVs of non-augers, to keep us in that same state of uncertainty as the populace as a whole. Regardless, it doesn't stop the book from raising questions about the system, questions that can be applied to real world religions and how they gain and wield power.

CONCLUSION: Race The Sands is a rousing standalone fantasy adventure, the kind that starts on a small, personal scale and eventually grows to a finale that shakes Becar to its core. It also scratches that itch of the "human bonds with a magical creature" trope, even if these particular magical creatures are reincarnated humans. If you're in the mood for monsters or racing or a primarily female cast surviving against all odds, Race The Sands delivers on all counts, in one delightful package that doesn't require a series commitment!


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