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Sarah Beth Durst

Registration is now open! The Port Jefferson Free Library, 100 Thompson St., Port Jefferson hosts an Author Panel featuring Sarah Beth Durst, Catherine Asaro and Kelley Skovron on Wednesday, Dec. 14 at 7 p.m.  

Join them for an evening filled with mystery, interstellar fantasy, misfit animals, and a ghost with a vengeance. Hear from these award-winning authors about their newly published novels, writing process, behind the scenes info, and more in this panel-style event. 

Moderated by Salvatore J. Filosa, Head of Technical Services and Marketing & Outreach Librarian,  newly released titles to be discussed include: The Jigsaw Assassin, 2022,  published by Baen Books, by Catherine Asaro (perfect for adult readers); The Shelterlings, 2022, published by Clarion Books of Harper Collins, by Sarah Beth Durst (perfect for kids); and The Ghost of Drowned Meadow, 2022, published by Scholastic, by Kelley Skovron (perfect for kids). 

The event is open to all. To register, call 631-473-0022 or visit portjefflibrary.org/authors.

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Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Author Sarah Beth Durst

Like many sisters, Even and Odd shared many things:

            Their bedroom.

            Their closet.

            Six pairs of flip-flops.

            Use of the living-room TV.

            And … magic.

This is the intriguing premise of the gifted, award-winning Sara Beth Durst’s young adult novel, Even and Odd. Sisters Emma and Olivia Berry live in Stony Haven, Connecticut, having moved from the magic land of Firoth. The siblings’ powers manifest on alternate days. Thus, Emma’s nickname is Even, and Oliva’s is Odd.

As they grew, the girls took separate paths. Even has passionately embraced her training and is studying for her level five exams for the Academy of Magic; she wants nothing more than to enter the magic world as a hero. Odd’s interests are grounded in the “real” world; she spends her free time working at an animal shelter and sees her sorcery as a burden.

Durst is a consummate world builder. Her nearly two dozen books contain original mythologies, complete with unique and imaginative rules, histories, and limitations. (Three of her previous, very different novels were reviewed in this paper:  The Stone Girl, in May 2018; The Deepest Blue, in June 2019; and The Bone Maker, in May 2021). With Even and Odd, she has created a universe where the known overlaps with the enchanted. And while books about wizards cannot help but recall a bespectacled boy with a lightning scar, Durst’s current offering—with its wry, contemporary wit and easy charm—echoes Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn and Piers Anthony’s Xanth series. She writes with a smart sense of humor, penning characters larger than life but wholly relatable. As in her previous works, her dialogue is crisp and honest and always rings true.

The Berry family runs a border shop, “close to the gateway between worlds,” serving the magical community when its members are in the mundane world. In addition to supplies, it is a source of information. For example, visitors “from Firoth could ask basic questions, such as ‘What is an airplane, and is it going to eat me?” The local gateway is behind Fratelli’s Express Bagel, owned by a wizard who looks like “a carb-and-cream-cheese-bearing Santa Claus.”

A normal day immediately shifts when it appears that “magic [is] on the fritz.” Even is briefly stuck as a skunk when she is not able to reverse a transformation. While investigating the gateway, Even and Odd become trapped in Firoth. Teamed up with an energetic young unicorn traveling under the name Jeremy (real name “Shimmerglow”), they confront the villainous Lady Vell, who is draining the magic for nefarious purposes.

The unleashed turmoil has caused shifting geography, with homes landing in dangerous locations, stalked by creatures displaced from their habitats. The author subtly offers a portrait of refugees seeking haven and even a hint of vigilante justice as the population begins to question the ability of the Academy of Magic to cut through its bureaucracy and deal with the dire situation.

The book contains a wide range of unusual beings: Haughty elves, friendly centaurs conducting research, flower fairies that sting, mermaids that screech, and a curmudgeonly but helpful goblin are among the denizens.

While the action is brisk and the adventure is always engaging, Durst’s ability to balance the magical realm with true family dynamics elevates the novel. Even and Odd are close but clash. “For me to be surprised,” quips Odd, “you need not to be predictable!” They seek their parents’ approval and yet yearn for independence. The author wisely chooses for the children to hope that the adults can fix the situation (so often eschewed in literature for young people).

Durst also delves into the doubts that plague Even. She frets over the upcoming magic test:

I have to be ready [] not taking [the exam] would feel like saying she wasn’t as good as kids her age who had magic every day. Maybe even like saying I’ll never be as good as them […] It would be admitting that the little voice of doubt that nagged at her was right, that practicing every other day wasn’t ever going to be enough, and she’d never be ready to be a hero.

Once in Firoth, Even and Odd learn starling facts about their origins. They face a surprising revelation that gives an understanding of the history of the unheard of split magic. This leads to further introspection but does not deter them from entering danger for the greater good.

Even and Odd is a wonderful book about and filled with enchantment. Durst deals with misguided and false assumptions about self, but also the ability to learn and grow. The story’s heart celebrates inherently different sisters who are bonded by love. Even and Odd embraces the normal and fantastic and weaves a shared magic all its own.

Award-winning author Sarah Beth Durst lives in Stony Brook with her husband, her children, and her ill-mannered cat. Pick up a copy of Even and Odd online at www.amazon.com or www.barnesandnoble.com.  For more information, visit sarahbethdurst.com.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

What happens after “The End?” After the villain is vanquished and order is restored? When the heroes go on to the rest of their lives? The gifted, prolific fantasy author Sarah Beth Durst explores this concept in her enthralling new adult novel, The Bone Maker (published by Harper Voyager).

Twenty-five years before, five extraordinary heroes saved Vos from the destructive forces of the evil Eklor, “a man who dealt death the way a card player dealt cards.” While Eklor was slain and his animated minions destroyed, one of the quintet died in battle. With this, the remaining four went their separate ways.

Author Sarah Beth Durst

The book opens a quarter of a century after the war, with a crime of body snatching. Kreya, the leader of the good forces, has been on a mission to resurrect her husband, Jentt, who was the fallen warrior. Kreya has used Eklor’s notebooks to bring him back, justifying the use of her enemy’s research. “Knowledge itself isn’t evil. It’s how you use it.”  But the decision haunts her.

In this society, the bone makers and their ilk are permitted to use animal bones for their magic. Kreya’s dilapidated tower home is populated by a host of benign creatures. But utilizing human bones is forbidden, adding to Kreya’s moral dilemma. Until now, she had been collecting bones from unlit pyres. Now, she wants to revisit the field of battle to acquire what she needs once and for all. 

All of this is part of the exceptional world-building for which Durst is known and so adept. She creates a detailed, accessible universe and accompanying mythology that are always true onto themselves. At the center are the people who deal in these enchantments:

As far as the guild was concerned, there were only three types of bone workers: bone readers, who used animal bones to reveal the future, understand the present, and glimpse the past; bone wizards, who created talismans out of animal bones that imbued their users with speed, stealth, and other attributes; and bone makers, like Kreya, who used animal bones to animate the inanimate. Ships, weaving machines, cable cars … all the advances of the past few centuries had been fueled by bone makers.

In addition to the human bones, Kreya must offer part of her own life force to bring Jentt back. The resurrection spell is one of inverse power: Every day Jentt lives again, she will have one day fewer. She has revived him for short periods, but the suspense in the first part of the book builds to his complete restoration. 

When she decides that she must visit his death site to acquire the bones from Vos’s fallen soldiers, she recruits Zera, the bone wizard from her team, who now lives in lavish and hedonistic excess. Zera, a master of talisman creation seems shallow and petty, having parlayed her victory into extraordinary wealth and position. She is engagingly sly, quick with a quip, and outwardly narcissistic. “I require pie before I desecrate a mass grave.” Gradually, her depths are revealed, but she never loses her wicked charm and turn of phrase. 

Kreya and Zera venture to the site, returning with the bones and a suspicion that Eklor either never died or has been brought back. Kreya fully restores Jentt to life. Then, along with Zera, gather the two remaining members of their troupe: Marso, the bone reader, whose skill “far exceeded the skills of other bone readers,” and Stran, “a warrior with the experience in using bone talismans to enhance his already prodigious strength.” However, Marso, plagued by doubt and perhaps a touch of madness, sleeps naked on the streets of the least savory of Vos’s cities. Stran has entered a life of contented domesticity, living happily with his wife and three children on a farm. Kreya must reunite this disparate group to bring order once again.

Paramount is that then, and now, Kreya is their leader. As Zera states: “Ahh, but what not everyone knows is this: the legend says that the guild master tasked five, but he did not. He tasked only one. Kreya. She chose the rest of us. All that befell us is her fault. All the glory, and all the pain.” Kreya carried this responsibility during the first war and will do so again.

The Bone Maker refreshingly lacks preciousness. The characters struggle with darkness, inner demons, and attitude. The core team shares common bonds: fear and love, blended with resentments and guilt. The reluctance to take on this new adventure comes from a place of maturity. But once called, they embrace their fates and understand the need — and risk — of sacrifice for the greater good. But even then, they question their actions.

There is no generic nobility. Fallible human beings inhabit this world of fantasy. Kreya is a portrait of loneliness, living like a hermit with her creations, who she calls “my little ones,” monomaniacally focused on raising her husband. Jentt, alive, reflects that “Every time I wake, all I remember is life.” He has lost all the time in between. Stran yearns to return to his fulfilling family life. And Marso, the most fragile and tormented, desires nothing more than peace of mind.

Even with exploring ethical issues, there are plenty of thrills with a host of unusual and dangerous monsters, including venom-laced stonefish and croco-raptors who hunt in deadly packs. There are rousing battles and daring escapes. Eklor’s formally dormant army of the reanimated is poised for invasion. The guild-led government struggles with shadows of self-interest that tip towards corruption. The citizens of Vos do not want to accept the possibility of another war: “There aren’t many who will believe the dangers of the past have anything to do with them and their lives … they want to believe it’s over.” The plot twists and turns, building to a revelation midway through the book, shifting the story’s entire course to a gripping confrontation and satisfying denouement.

Sometimes labeling a book fantasy can be reductive — that it is “good for that genre.” But whether it is confronting issues of sacrifice, delving into a highly original and unique world of magic, or reveling in the banter of old friends facing new quest, The Bone Maker is a rich and complex tapestry — and a great novel on any terms.  

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Award-winning author Sarah Beth Durst lives in Stony Brook with her husband, her children, and her ill-mannered cat. The Bone Maker is her 22nd novel and is available at Book Revue in Huntington, Barnes & Noble and on Amazon. For more information, visit sarahbethdurst.com.

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.