(My review follows)
The natural magic of the classic The Island of the Blue Dolphins meets the danger and courage of The Hunger Games in this dazzling, intricate stand-alone fantasy novel set in award-winning author Sarah Beth Durst’s beloved world of Renthia.
Life is precious and precarious on the islands of Belene. Besieged by a capricious ocean full of malicious spirits, the people of the islands seek joy where they can. Mayara, one of the island’s fearless oyster divers, has found happiness in love. But on the day of her wedding to the artist Kelo, a spirit-driven storm hits the island with deadly force.
To save her loved ones, Mayara reveals a dangerous secret: she has the power to control the spirits. When the storm ends, she is taken into custody by the queen’s soldiers and imprisoned with other women like her.
They vary in age and social status, but to many they are heroes who will aide the country or witches that will sacrifice themselves trying. No matter who they are, the women are sent to a terrifying place—an island filled with bloodthirsty nature spirits, and left without food, water, shelter, or any tools except their own instincts and magic. Whoever survives the Island of Testing will be declared heirs to the queen. But no matter if she wins or loses, Mayara knows that the life she dreamed of is gone.
368 pages – Published March 19th 2019 by Harper Voyager
My Review of The Deepest Blue
It was very difficult for me to rate this book. In part because I’m a fan of this author and her Queens of Renthia trilogy as well as her book Lost (unrelated to this world or series). I think reviewing a book is made even more troublesome when you’ve been anticipating its release and it doesn’t live up to your expectations. That’s what happened here.
While I enjoyed the story, and I already enjoy spending time in Renthia, there are a number of things that felt superficial and missed their mark. I liked the main character Mayara. She’s tenacious and brave, and full of love for the people she cares about. The book opens beautifully on Mayara and Kelo’s wedding day. Right off the bat we get a taste of why Mayara’s family sometimes calls her reckless. We know this protagonist is going to take us on an adventure. For the most part the opening to this story was spot on. There is some spoiling that goes on in the rest of this review, not in detail but enough detail to spoil the story some or a lot.
But then there were things that started to get to me. For instance, mentioning repeatedly how Mayara gets ready for a deep dive, how she compares so much to getting ready for a deep dive and every time she takes deep breaths we have to remember that that’s what she does when she’s getting ready for a deep dive. *Sigh.*
A major pet peeve of mine when it comes to reading in general, and something I’m trying to remember as I write my own book, is opportunistic writing, as I like to call it. I don’t like when characters are just made to fit because you need them to. Or turns in the story just go that way because the author needs them to, not because they flow naturally. In the case of this story, Mayara’s new found friend Roe has apparently been studying in secret and yet she seems to be no better at controlling the spirits than Mayara? How and why? In this case, if you’re going to make your character be awesome, more awesome than they should be, then build that case for us please. Don’t just say yup there you go, that’s how it is, Mayara is just a natural. Break some scenes down for me. Don’t just tell me oh yeah she’s not so good but then, she’s still got this. What does she figure out that helps her that she didn’t know before? How does she break through what she doesn’t know? Don’t just keep reminding me she’s not practiced but then showing me she’s plenty capable. Show me something in Mayara’s character that makes her special with regard to the scene. Other than her ability to swim and dive. Expand on these things.
Again, these are notes to myself as I write and to all of us writers in addition to critique of this story. Remember show-don’t-tell is a relevant, worthwhile piece of advice. Even if it’s just a little scene or a little tidbit or even something that isn’t obvious, put it in there to show us this character has an edge. Show me, don’t just tell me they do. And don’t keep telling me about the same quality, that’s not enough to carry me through believing and rooting for her. Yes she’s brave and fearful and that’s real, but go deeper please. Show me how it comes to be that she navigates through these murky waters (pun intended) instead of expecting me to roll with it because she’s the main character, and ya know, that’s how it goes.
The author constantly tells us that Mayara likens every challenge to a deep dive and here’s the ritual that precedes it (please no more). Give us more of her inner character and how she breaks things down to get through them, but please know that once you’ve told us a couple times you don’t have to spell the same thing out every time thereafter. (Have I done it enough with regard to this detail? That’s how it felt reading.) It was things like that by the way that made me wonder if Mrs. Durst wasn’t getting confused with her art of writing middle grade. I’m probably reading into that since I know she writes in different age groups, nevertheless, that’s how I felt, that she at times forgot she was writing for adults.
Back to what I was saying: she tells us about getting ready for deep dives. (OMG, this again, really eLPy?) Tell us more about what’s happening that makes her capable of handling the spirits when, in this part of the world, girls hide their affinity for fear of being found out and sent to the island for testing. They don’t get to explore their affinities on their own or often. And maybe expand on this especially for those of us who have read the other series. What did Mayara miss by not being able to study her affinity? What does everyone miss? Don’t spend so much time on the same elements of love and Kelo and her family. Now she’s face to face with this affinity that she’s had to hide, how does she face it? What does that feel like for her to confront this?
It’s fair to say that we know from the start that this girl is going to be our hero, she’s going to go to the island. But what happens once we get there and even the immediate lead up to their departure feels so forced! She just so happens to be the last girl and now they’re off? So everyone else got to train for some undisclosed amount of time and she’s just shit out of luck? I know I’ve already given some spoilers here but I don’t think they’re too consequential however I won’t go into much detail in terms of other incidences that bothered me once they got to the island. All said and done for me it felt like the author tried too hard by not being creative enough to make Mayara the heroine. How? Why? How? There’s a lot that was opportunistic. Put her in a desperate situation because that’s what these stories do. Right? NO, don’t do that! I mean do it but show us readers how and why, not just because that’s what you think the story needs. Build us a sand castle but show us the tools, the methods, the failed attempts, the learning curves, the successes. Show us that the “it-just-so-happened-that” moments are realistic in your story, they don’t just happen. They happened. Don’t remind me I’m reading a made-up story.
Things like: so and so got injured so ya know, it’s all up to Mayara. Really? I mean, really? How perfect that our heroine has to do it on her own instead of someone more qualified with the spirits. Really? The whole scene on the island was tied up like a bow and way too neat. And I’m sorry but I was really hoping for the diversity of spirits that we saw in the previous trilogy. It’s really an inconsequential thing but I got sort of bored with the spirits seeming to be of the same five or so forms.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a fan of Sarah Beth Durst and I will continue to read her work. I do hope she continues in this world, in fact, I hope she explores the entire world, that whole darn map she drew for us! But please don’t sew them all up so nicely. I love happy endings, I’m not saying leave us with some sour bitter ends, but don’t make the bow so damn perfect!
There were some nice twists in this story, some conclusions that were satisfying but the end result as a whole was very disappointing because it was SO similar to another book she wrote. How did Mayara with her supreme lack of experience and training with spirits wind up in THAT position? I was left shaking my head going “REALLY! HOW?!” At least in one of the Queens of Renthia books the character built up, and worked up to her position. It didn’t “just-so-happen”. There are what should be deep emotional conversations that fall flat and/or feel like they’re written for a younger group. Then these violent scenes that are like whoa, was that for shock and awe, oh yes this is for young adult/adults. All in all, perhaps this book was rushed. It missed its mark for me. I don’t dislike Mayara or the other characters but I’m not connected to her. Do I want to see her again? Meh…sure? But give her some more meat please, more emotion, more depth.
While you may think I’m a jerk and mean and all that fun stuff at this point – that’s fine – I will say I very much enjoyed the sociopath we met in previous books, Lady Garnah. She is a well-developed character who is both loathsome and likable in the strangest way. I dare say I had to root for her a few times. This character has had time to marinate and she works. She exhibits the difference between rushing a character and/or forcing their story to your will and allowing them to be who they are in the story. She was a welcome surprise and an A+ for me.
At the end of the book Durst explains that she wanted to write a book about someone growing and strengthening from love, not just pain. In her personal experience she grew a lot from her love for her husband and her family. I respect and admire her making this attempt to approach this from a different angle. That said while she didn’t completely miss the mark she kind of did because for me she tried so hard to stay on the love page that it felt like she may have deliberately avoided character and story development that leaned too much towards pain and hardship. I hope if we see Mayara again we get a full pallet of the colors of her personality and a deeper look inside.
And it is with a heavy heart I give this book 3/5 stars. I have to be review with integrity so there it is. Sarah Beth Durst keep going, I can’t wait to read more, but this one I think IMHO needed more time in the oven especially given the deep philosophy behind what you were attempting.
Note to myself and all authors, not every main character should be a queen.