Race the Sands by Sarah Beth Durst

Author: Sarah Beth Durst
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Format: Paperback
Genre: Fantasy

Back Cover Blurb

Life, death, and rebirth – in Becar, who you are in this life will determine your next life. Yet there is hope – you can change your destiny with the choices you make. But for the darkest individuals, there is no redemption: you come back as a kehok, a monster, and are doomed to be a kehok for the rest of time. 

Unless you can win the Races. 

After a celebrated career as an elite kehok rider, Tamra became a professional trainer. Then a tragic accident shattered her confidence, damaged her reputation, and left her nearly broke. Now, she 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 needs 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.

What I Thought

“Call it what it is: monster racing.
Forget that, and you die.”

The world building in Race the Sands treads familiar ground and gives us an Egyptian style setting, and culture, living along a great river—the Aur—surrounded by desert. A fabulous dressed fantasy city, the Heart of Becar, and the usual slew of towns and villages with people focused with making a living off the land. 

Where Race The Sands differs from the standard tropes, is two-fold. The spiritual needs of the population are administered to by Augurs, and not priest. Only the purest of the pure can become augurs. Gifted with the ability to read people’s auras and determine their future fate, after death. Individuals with flawed auras are not reborn as birds, or as higher animals, but bugs, rats, and insects. Or worse, those with the darkest of souls are reborn as chimeric monsters known as, Kehoks.

It’s these monsters, or kehoks, that are central to the story. The Becarians love to race and, what do they race? Why, of course, kehoks. Impossible to tame, and nearly as impossible to train, nonetheless, monsters are corralled and trainers are engaged by the wealthy to teach riders how to—at the bare minimum—control these monsters, long enough to race them. Race them and become champions and never want for anything else in life. Making this a dream for some as a way to escape poverty and misfortune.

Which brings us to our two main characters: Tamra, a trainer with a storied past. Once upon a time champion rider who, after injury, becomes a trainer. But, after a disaster on the race track the previous year, where both her kehok and rider died. She’s fallen from grace and favour and desperate to find a championship winning combo of kehok and rider. 

As chance would have it, Tamra finds Raia, a runaway, who likewise down on her luck is desperate to earn enough money to buy off her parents and win her freedom. Raia’s backstory sets her up perfectly. Used and abused by those who should have given her love. Raia is willing to do what ever it takes to be free.

The story has a number of interesting layer that, personally, I just wished had been given as much depth and background as both Tamra and Raia’s backstories. As it is, there are a number of other intriguing threads woven into the plot, which is, in general, narrated from Tamra and Raia’s POV. 

Joining Tamra and Raia is Dar, a prince who is thrust into the position of Emperor in waiting when his brother Zarin, the Emperor, dies. Leaving the realm open to invasion and war due to a weird set of politics and law. Laws that say Dar cannot be crowned the next Emperor till the vessel for his brother’s soul is found. Giving us a another series of plot threads involving palace intrigue, backstabbing, a lot of gossip, and espionage.

Then we have Augur Yorbel, a kindly scholar with a gentle nature who has—in a way—befriended the young Prince Dar, and goes on his own quest to help discover Zarin’s vessel when the Augurs who have been set the task, fail. And what he discovers is the surprise twist for the entire story.  

The last character in this mix I want to talk about is Tamra’s patron, the very eccentric Lady Evara, who, it can be said, adds some comic relief while also being something of a surprise. Her backstory was as intriguing and as complex as Tamra’s and the reasoning behind her motivation. I found her to be a fun addition to the disparate troupe thrown together by circumstances. 

What Durst has done is bring together a number of intriguing elements through these characters giving us plenty of action and adventure, drama, and plot twists. The story is—in part—a coming of age story. A story about family, bonding, and what makes family well, family, whether you’re a high-born prince, a lowly kehok rider, or a monster. And with Tamra, there is no distinction. She is the glue that holds them, and the story, all together.

I will say, apart from a few annoying dips and being a little long-winded, this is a rollicking good fantasy romp out in the desert. Climb on board your chosen kehok and just enjoy the ride, and let the wind whip through your hair!

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