Sub-genre: Swords and sorcery
Rating: 3 1/2 pints of blood
Let's get one thing straight: the cover art is at least 75% responsible for me owning this book. Seriously, look at it. The gorgeous colours, the lighting, the sense of movement in the silk, the capable-looking woman of colour... it's like they designed this cover specifically to catch my attention.
And, y'know, the premise sounded pretty intriguing too, but really, it's the cover art that landed it near the top of my "I MUST HAVE THIS BOOK" list. I wound up getting it for Christmas, so all may rejoice.
For most of her life, Liyana has been prepared to give up her body so her goddess can inhabit it for the sake of her tribe. Once every hundred years, the gods of the desert tribes take their place in prepared vessels to live among the people, where they can touch the physical world and ensure there's enough water and food for the tribes to survive. Now, in the middle of a great drought, it's more important than ever that the gods can take their proper place in their vessels, and although it means her own death, Liyana is more than prepared to make this sacrifice for her people.
But although everything goes as planned at the ceremony that should have ended with the goddess Bayla taking over Liyana's body, Liyana finds herself exhausted and still very present. After long consideration, the tribe decides there's no choice but to leave the god-rejected vessel behind in the hopes that a new, more pleasing vessel can be prepared in time to prevent them all from dying.
Left alone in the desert, Liyana isn't sure how long she can survive, or why she's been so cruelly rejected by the goddess she's devoted her life to. Before things can get too desperate, though, the trickster god of another tribe (already set in his vessel) finds her and tells her that several of the desert gods, Bayla included, have been stolen. In order to save the tribes, Liyana and Korbyn the trickster god must round up the other vessels and take them to rescue the gods from whatever force is strong enough to have stolen them in the first place.
I'm always interested in fantasy that gets away from the standard Euro-centric setting, and Vessel does this with a rich and detailed world. The desert and the tribes that inhabit it are so real you can almost feel the sand around you, even if you're reading in the dead of winter (as I did), and Liyana's pride in her homeland is easy to understand. It's a sharp contrast from the Empire, which is vague enough there's no personality beneath the military force. No sense of culture or identity, nothing to ground them in the reality the book was otherwise so fantastic at establishing.
Even if you're not the kind of reader who's drawn in by worldbuilding, though, you can find a lot to love in this book. Liyana, Korbyn, and the other vessels are a collection of interesting characters, each very different from the others. I wished we'd gotten to know Raan a little better, since a vessel who resents being a vessel is something that stands out. Interestingly, though, it's probably Korbyn who grows and changes the most during the journey. As protagonist, Liyana picks up some new skills and tests herself in some rather drastic circumstances, but she was strong and resourceful from the beginning, so she didn't have far to go. The trickster god, however, finds himself facing the consequences of being the god nobody's sure they can trust.
I really enjoyed the legends the characters told each other, stories that often involved past adventures of the gods or other tales passed down through the tribes. The stories become a recurring theme throughout the book, something that helps to tie things all together and adds a certain degree of depth to the characters (especially the gods) and their world. The stories were short and always tied in to the situation at hand, so while they could have gotten distracting, they were well used and in fact became a strength of the novel.
By contrast, the romance included one of the most contrived triangles I've ever encountered. Liyana and Korbyn grow close enough through their adventures that Bayla becomes concerned, since Korbyn is meant to be her lover. She's aware he's not treating Liyana as the vessel she's meant to be, but is growing to appreciate her as a person on her own terms, and while Liyana keeps trying to remind herself this is the beloved of her goddess and that she herself is on borrowed time, she can't keep from growing feelings. For a good three quarters of the book, this is the romantic scenario, until a new character is introduced and instantaneously, there are meant to be feelings that rival the ones the reader has spent the entire book with. It's of course not a situation that would settle in a way to keep everyone satisfied, but more political motivations would have been easier to believe. Trying to add a fourth person into the romance aspect at the end of the book feels like enough of a deus ex machina it took away from the satisfaction I'd had reading the rest of the book. Which is a shame, because up until that point, I'd really been enjoying the story, the characters, and the fantastic world they lived in.
Vessel is available in hardcover or as an e-book.