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.
Wow, this book was a total surprise to me. I’ve only read one book by Durst before and none of her Renthia books so I didn’t know much about this one going into it and I’m really glad for that because it was such an engaging read full of danger and romance and blood and death and love and family and magic and politics. Yeah, that about sums it up. I had a good time with this one!
This story is at once a very personal one and a very epic one in terms of shifting the world. This is my second book of Durst’s after Race the Sands and I’m beginning to thing that telling very personal stories with epic stakes is her m.o. Which is great! This is all about Mayara and how she wants to get back home to her husband after being found out to have a connection to the nature spirits that inhabit the world. Having been discovered she’s taken away where she can either become one of the silent nameless enforcers who help find other spirit sisters, or she can take the test and become an heir, one of the women who help control the spirits and try to keep the people safe from them. While this does center on Mayara and her journey to get home, she gets involved in things that are world changing during that quest. On her way to the island where the test is held she meets other women that are taking the test with her and befriends them. Later, as she gets to know some of them, it becomes apparent that there are things in the works that could not only help Mayara get home but also change history and the way women are chosen to become heirs. Because it’s bloody, this test, and survival rates are low.
So, one thing I totally didn’t expect in this was for the test to be so gruesome. The women are left on the island to survive hundreds of hungry nature spirits and they have to live for 30 days in order to pass this test. It’s brutal. And shocking. And extremely violent. Honestly was a little in awe of all the horrifying ways Durst thought up to kill off minor characters during this section of the book. For whatever reason I was not prepared for that level of brutality. I don’t want to say that I loved it because that makes me seem like a weirdo but there was something very Battle Royale/Hunger Games-esque about it that I really enjoyed, even though the women had to fight spirits and not each other. I really enjoyed the worldbuilding in this. Everything from how the world works with the nature spirits and the spirit sisters that help make the world safe for humans, to the island nation, to the test, to the corrupt political system, to the capital city, etc. I know this is part of a greater world and I think I’ll have to read the other Renthia books now because I’m curious if they expand on this world more as far as the history of it all.
Usually I talk about the characters first but I saved it for last here because there were so many interesting things about this book. The characters were wonderful. I loved Mayara. She’s stubborn but lovable. Does she always want to make the right decision? I don’t know, I think because of what happened with her sister when she was younger she does want to be a bit selfish when some things are concerned but ultimately she’s too good of a person not to help those in need or to ignore doing the right thing. Even at the end when she finally gets what she’s been fighting for she has to make that decision again. She’s got a strength to her that is imbued with love, love for her family but especially for her husband. Thinking of him gives her strength to carry on and a goal to work towards. And it’s the same for Kelo, her husband. That bond between them is a thing that keeps both of them going during the worst of times. Other characters were great as well. I liked Roe, who Mayara befriends on the island. She’s a bit of a know it all and can be prickly, but she’s also someone who is trying to get her loved ones back with bigger goals in mind as well.
I think my favorite was the one courtier to the queen with her poisons and potions. She is obviously a bit of a psychopath and has no qualms about hurting others, but all for the greater good? She’s kind of like a tamed Dexter? I don’t know but I found her to be one of the more interesting characters in the story because she’s definitely a characters without many morals that is helping ‘the good side’ so to speak. Lord Maarte on the other hand is your typical power hungry thinks he can get away with everything because he always has privileged upper crust one percenter jerk and you really want him to get what’s coming to him. Even though he can also be charming at times. I do love the way Durst wrote those two characters in particular–they’re really interesting when you examine them side by side.
Overall, I had a really great time with this book. The pacing was great as well, I found it to be a quick read, perhaps because it was so engaging. 4.5/5 stars.