“Race the Sands” is Sarah Beth Durst’s 20th published book, and maybe her best book yet. It’s a lovely fantasy in which women prove their strength not physically, but through mental exertions. The two main characters, Tamra and Raia, each have escaped a tortured childhood in the desert kingdom of Becar. They each end up working with kehoks, monsters who are born with the souls of depraved humans who didn’t deserve to come back in a human or animal body. Once reborn as a kehok, they are destined to be reborn as kehoks forevermore. It’s eternal damnation, and kehoks are monsters.
These monsters don’t respond to love or kindness. They want to kill and maim and destroy everything because of their monstrosity. Tamra, a former elite kehok rider, is desperate to find a kehok to train and a rider to race the kehok in Becar’s national races and win. It’s the only way she will be able to continue paying her daughter’s tuition at the school for augurs. Augurs are elite citizens, and the only ones who can read your soul (aura), who can tell you what you will be in the next life. It’s all about life, death, and rebirth. And the augurs control it all in Becar, where the emperor has died and his younger brother, Dal, cannot be coronated until his brother’s soul has been located in its new vessel and protected. But the augurs cannot find Zarin, his brother, in whatever new body he was reborn into, and time is running out. The neighboring country is amassing troops to invade, and important decisions cannot be made until there is a ruler.
Raia is running from unloving parents and an unwanted engagement to a man who killed his first wife. She is determined to make her way in the world, and if she can ride a kehok and succeed, so be it. What no one expects is how the newborn kehok Tamra buys, an apparently unmanageable killer, reacts to Raia, and what happens when they begin to race together.
The trainer, Tamra, is an unusual main character. She is not beautiful, but rather scarred and determined. She is a wonderful mother, but she is far from perfect. What she does have is an inner kindness and humanity. While other kehok trainers beat and starve their animals into submission, Tamra controls them with her mind, while treating the kehoks humanely. She is so powerful she can control several kehoks using just her thoughts. Strong women in this book show the men in it that physical strength isn’t always most important.
Durst forces us to question the status quo about religion and government. She opens our eyes about the nature of power and the corrupting forces that power and money can bring. She makes readers realize that no one is better than anyone else because of their position or their title. And that those who would preserve their power at the expense of the freedom of others are monsters.
While kehoks are monsters, they are straightforward monsters. You know by looking at them that they are monsters. Human monsters are a different animal. They walk among us, look like us, and often have power over us, but under their human disguise, they are as ugly and venal as any kehok.
“Race the Sands” will grab you and not let go. While the first few chapters take a slower pace because Durst is building the background and the world of Becar, the pace picks up to the point that this becomes a book you can’t put down, a book that you will savor at the same time you are feverishly turning the pages to find out how it all ends. I actually reread it immediately, looking for and enjoying my favorite parts. The characters and their world will linger in your mind long after the last page has been turned. It’s a perfect book — powerful, thoughtful, heartbreaking, and impactful.
Review first posted at Bookreporter.com.
Please note: This review is based on the advance reader’s copy provided by the author for review purposes.