Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.
“Does it truly benefit people to know what their souls will become? What does it matter? Shouldn’t they just be good people because they love their family and they care about the people around them? People should be good because it’s right, not because an augur tells them it’s what they should do.”
After losing her rider in a tragic accident at the Becaran Races, disgraced Trainer Tamra Verlas has been reduced to teaching the children of the wealthy to ride kehoks, the monstrous souls reborn as condemned beasts that are too evil to ever reincarnate as humans, or even lesser beasts. But Tamra needs the money to help her beloved daughter Shalla continue her training with the augurs, the soul readers who guide Becaran society, and try to help its citizens avoid damaging their souls to the point that they are reborn as monsters. But as Shalla’s tuition becomes increasingly expensive, and Tamra’s debts to her sponsor mount, she knows that they only way to avoid having Shalla become a permanent ward of the temple is for her to find and train a rider and racer that can win the Becaran Races. With the prize money, but she will be able to repay her debts, cover her daughter’s tuition, and ensure her future. But the rider and racer team she puts together draws Tamra into the midst of a plot that goes beyond the Becaran Races, threatening the very future of the Becaran Empire.
The fire at the centre of Race the Sands is Tamra, an independent, determined woman, a fierce single mother, and a force of nature on the race track in her younger days, before an injury put an end to her racing career. In the acknowledgement, Sarah Beth Durst reveals that Tamra’s namesake is fantasy author Tamora Pierce, the mentor who made Durst believe she really could become a writer. Similarly, Tamra becomes the mentor to Raia, a seventeen-year-old girl on the run from an arranged marriage that her parents tried to force upon her after she flunked out of augur training. Although Tamra normally despises the sons and daughters of the wealthy as too soft to ever actually win a race, in Raia she sees a fire that she believes she can bend towards victory.
Although the plot centres on Tamra and Raia, another interesting character is Yorbel, who has spent most of his life safe within the augurs’ temple, studying philosophy and ethics. He has only ever met the public in closely controlled one-on-one readings, where citizens may meet with an augur to have their auras read, and the fate of their soul revealed, in the hopes that they will mend their ways. With Yorbel’s character, I appreciated the exploration of what happens when the academy meets reality, and high flying theoretical principles clash with the grey reality of real world choices. Taken from his farmer parents when he was a child, Yorbel has ever since known only the soft and sheltered life of the augur temple, where everything is provided for him. Being sent out into the world on a secret mission by Prince Dar, the Emperor-to-Be of Becar, proves to be a more complicated venture than Yorbel could ever have dreamed of, and his journey is one of the more interesting aspects of Race the Sands.
While the primary characters are intriguing, the secondary characters here are a bit flat. We never so much as learn the name of the rider Tamra lost the previous season, making this person into more a of a tragic backstory than any sort of actual character. Raia’s parents and they man they want her to marry seem flatly villainous, in part because we don’t see enough of them to really understand their characters or motivations. Durst also introduces three other riders who are supposed to be Raia’s friends, but they feature so little it is hard for these characters to feel like more than an afterthought. However, from a character perspective, the book is well worth reading for Tamra alone.
Becaran society, and the very premise of Race the Sands is built on a problematic system of value judgements that cry out to be overthrown. Humans, for example, are at the top of the chain of reincarnation, and animals are lesser creatures for the rebirth of those whose souls were not pure in their previous life. Kehoks are monsters whose physical ugliness and malformation is a visual representation of the evilness of their souls, thus implicitly equating beauty with goodness. The kehok Tamra buys for the races at first seems poised to undermine the idea that the soul of a kehok is irredeemable, but in the end the truth about the black lion only reinforces this structure. While the plot of Race the Sands does call into question some aspects of this problematic system, ultimately tearing down corrupt institutions, I wanted to see Durst go farther, and burn down the ruins of this bankrupt concept.
You might also like The Deepest Blue