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Sarah Beth Durst

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Author Sarah Durst

In “The Deepest Blue,” author Sarah Durst has fashioned an enthralling fantasy in a striking and brutal world, rife with dangers that are deadly and ever present. The magic that is part of its existence only defends so much; it is strength and intelligence that become the greatest protections.

Durst outlines with quick, intense strokes the history. Originally, Renthia was four countries and the queens tamed the spirits of earth, tree, air, water, fire and ice. When the wild, unclaimed spirits that lived in the sea attacked the land, the queens repelled them — destroying many and compelling the others into a deep slumber in “the Deepest Blue.” These powerful spirits existed before the time of mankind, and they ache with an ancient hunger.

These spirits have an unquenchable urge to create and destroy.  A wind spirit is described:  “Screaming as it came, it flew across the seas and onto the shore. It bent the trees until they bowed, their tips touching the sand. It tore at the houses, ripping the shutters from their windows and the clay tiles from the roofs.” A water spirit is shown: “Rising up in massive swells, the waves slammed into the island, flooding the homes that were closest to the shore, destroying gardens and drowning livestock.” Ultimately, “all were deadly.”

In the matriarchal mythology, there are select women who have the power to thwart and even annihilate the attackers. When they show their powers, they are taken away and given two choices: to be taken to the Island of Testing, Akena, to train to be an heir, or to forsake family and identity and become one of The Silent Ones, the queen’s white-masked and gray-robed enforcers. The chances of actually surviving to become an heir are slim; so many choose the latter and join the disturbing Silent Ones — standing “as if they were stone” — who come when it is sensed that someone has revealed her power.

Heirs “… were, in many ways, above the law. They were trained to fight threats to the islands. Trained to fight spirits …” It is the strongest women who need to become heirs, to fight the wildest and most dangerous of spirits. Whenever wild spirits are going to attack the islands, the queen becomes aware of their encroaching presence and sends the heirs to subdue them.

At the center of the story is Mayara. The book opens on the day of her wedding to childhood sweetheart, Kelo, an artisan who makes charms that repel the spirits.  Mayara’s parents are in mourning for Elorna, Mayara’s older sister, who was selected to fight the spirits but lost that battle. Like the others so endowed, the power is as much a gift as a curse.

Mayara’s intuits the malevolent forces: “She sensed the wild spirits swirling around them … She felt their unbridled hatred and rage pour into her until she thought she’d choke on it.”  She perceives their existence: “… they weren’t thoughts, precisely.  It was a whirlwind of need and want. They wanted blood, death, and pain.”  Mayara can feel the spirits and the “bottomless hunger and rage.”

Like so many, Mayara, had hidden her powers and only unleashed them when her island is under siege. Thus begins Mayara’s journey.  Confronted, she makes the choice to train to be an heir. From there, the book opens up to her training then the court beyond. It is a wild, fascinating adventure, with honest, inventive individuals and sharp plot twists, building to a thrilling conclusion.

The characters are extremely well drawn.  When we finally meet the Queen, Asana, she is portrayed not as villainous but as conflicted and dimensional, struggling against terrible choices and political intrigue. Her confidante, Lady Garnah, is a wonderful, wicked creation, offering the book’s humorous edge. An often impenetrable anti-hero of fascinating depth, she is deeply devoted and yet amoral, making her all the more terrifying. In one of the most original sequences, Lady Garnah manipulates from behind the scenes, engineering life-and-death revelations.

Themes of sacrifices — both large and small and made for the greater good — play out against the strength of the third choice — that actions do not necessarily come down to one or the other but something that is “more than.” “The Deepest Blue” is a wholly satisfying read. It is a tale of fantasy rooted in human truths.

Here, Durst eloquently and simply sums up our complex existence: “Red spots stained the sand. A drop of blood hit Roe’s forehead.  It dripped in a streak down her temple and then mixed with her tears.”

Sarah Beth Durst is the award-winning author of 18 fantasy books for kids, teens and adults. The master storyteller lives in Stony Brook with her husband, her children and her ill-mannered cat. Recommended for adults, “The Deepest Blue,” Book 4 of four in the Queens of Renthia Series, is available online at Barnes & Noble and Amazon. For more information, visit www.sarahbethdurst.com.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

“No matter what the story is, it’s all under the same sky.” 

Author Sarah Beth Durst

In her new young adult novel, “The Stone Girl’s Story,” Sarah Beth Durst has created a genuinely unique universe where those of flesh and blood (human and animal) coexist with animate stone creatures.  It is a fascinating conceit and she has populated a world where often the creatures of stone have more humanity and self-awareness than their living counterparts.

The book is an original take on the traditional Wizard of Oz-style journey. In this case, Mayka, a stone girl, leaves the mountain to rescue her stone companions. What has shifted in the secure retreat is that Father (the Stone Mason who carved them) has passed away and their markings have begun to fade. The markings are at the center of the story as they are at the heart of their stories: It is these designs that not only give them being but also individuality and purpose.

The carved designs define them. For instance, the cat, Kalgrey, is engraved with “This is Kalgrey the cat. Sharp of tongue and claws, nimble of paws and mind. She climbed the top of the chimney and scolded the sun and then slept when it hid, frightened behind a cloud.” But there is more to Kalgrey: as she “curl[s] up every night by the door to watch over [them] … and keep the rats out of the chicken feed.” Durst captures these simple yet complicated souls in an eloquently poetic prose.

The book opens with a touching scene where Mayka is visiting a stone turtle who is no longer aware, as its marks have faded. The poignant tableau casts the shadow of what is happening and possibly what is to come. Her feelings toward her comrade establish who she is and what she is willing to risk to help this intimate community. Even though she cannot smell the flowers or shed tears (though she ponders what both would be like), she has a heart that is full of truth, honesty and compassion.

The cover jacket of ‘The Stone Girl’s Story’

The stone Badger, now the oldest of the group, gives Mayka a blessing of sorts to send her on: “We are family. No blood binds us, for we have no blood, but we are bound by time and love. You will carry our love and hope with you to the valley, and it will strengthen you.” With this kind benediction, she leaves the protected Eden (where the stone animals feed and care for the real ones) and embarks on an odyssey down the mountain, into the valley, and finally to the town of Skye, where her goal is to find a stonemason to return with her and restore the patterns.  

She is accompanied by two stone birds:  the cautious Risa and the outgoing chatterbox Jacklo, who provides a wholly enjoyable mix of on-the-nose as well as deadpan humor. On their way, they are joined by a whimsical 2-foot-high stone dragon, Siannasi Yondolada Quilasa — called Si-Si—who deeply yearns to find her purpose — her “story.” 

“The Stone Girl’s Story” has a rich and accessible mythology, complete with the lore of how the first Stone Mason brought his work to life as well as a historical Stone War that devastated the society. It is this event that had far-reaching repercussions:  Stone Masons went from revered to feared to something in-between, now sequestered in the Stone Quarter. (The departed Father turns out to have had a very important connection to the war and all that ensued.) 

Mayka and her troupe become embroiled in the events surrounding the annual Stone Festival. It is here that they meet and join forces with a young man, Garit, who is apprenticed to Siorn, the stone mason. Siorn is a fully realized character, not merely an adversary and a villain; he is a dimensional human with his own deep-rooted beliefs (both dangerous and misguided).

Without revealing too much of the tightly woven and engaging plot, it is the challenges the quartet face and how they overcome them that encompasses the latter half of the adventure. Mayka and her mountain friends truly learn what it is to be “other” — both from humans and other stone creations.

While not illustrated, Durst paints in language so vivid that the tale leaps off the page. Her images are visceral. Prior to Mayka’s first experience in the city, her life has been pastoral. Now, she is overwhelmed by Skye’s tumult; the account leaves the reader in the midst of the chaos and is truly breathtaking: “Now that she was within the city, it seemed … too full, too much. This deep in the forest of people, she couldn’t see anything but more people.” Even gazing up, “the sky was only a thin streak of blue. But the roar of the city felt muffled, smothered by the walls.”

She takes in the surroundings and the inhabitants:

“They came in all shapes and sizes, wearing more colors than she knew existed: a boy in a more-orange-than-a-pumpkin hat, a woman wearing a dress of feathers, a man with a bare chest but a many-layered skirt with tassels dangling all around. Between them were stone creatures, plenty of them. Stone rats scurried through the street with rolls of paper strapped to their backs, carrying messages. A stone squirrel with a bucket around its neck was scrambling across the face of a building as it cleaned the windows. Other stone creatures — bears, wolves and bulls, some crudely carved and others exquisitely detailed — blocked the entrances to the fancier houses, acting as guards.”

Durst ponders what it is to be alive and the wonders of the natural universe (epitomized in a memorable depiction of butterfly migration). Time is relative and it is in how you use it, and she presents this in the contrast between mountain and valley worlds.

The book offers several important lessons without every overstating them or sacrificing the engaging narrative: That joy in living is freedom and we must be able to choose our own destinies … and that, ultimately, we have the ability not just to create but to change our own stories. Furthermore, it is not what we ask of others but of ourselves — and that our own untapped resources can be our deliverance. The powerful message is elegantly and honestly presented in a way that young people of all ages can comprehend the significance of this lesson. Like in “The Wizard of Oz,” the heroine seeks help but finally realizes she had the power within herself all along.

And, most of all, the book reminds us that “we make our stories our own.” It is that “everyone [has] a story that matter[s] most to them, that define[s] them.” “The Stone Girl’s Story” is that we are all need and hope — but, above all, we are potential. “I am the hero of my own story.” And that is a wonderful truth in a truly enchanting novel.

Sarah Beth Durst is the award-winning author of 15 fantasy books for kids, teens and adults. The master storyteller lives in Stony Brook with her husband, her children and her ill-mannered cat. Recommended for ages 10 to 12, “The Stone Girl’s Story,” published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Clarion Books, is available online at Barnes & Noble and Amazon. For more information, visit www.sarahbethdurst.com.

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