In Review: The Deepest Blue

Engaging characters, both good and evil, and magical menaces of all sizes make this a highly enjoyable read.

The Deepest Blue by Sarah Beth Durst

Published by Harper Voyager, March 19, 2019. Hardcover of 252 pages at $21.00. Also available as an eBook at $12.99 and Digital Audio at $26.99. 

The cover: The top half of this frontpiece has a dragon with its mouth open in a roar looking to the left. Its opposites are three snakes looking to the right, all hissing. In the bottom center is massive cephalopod whose tentacles are writing about. This menagerie of creatures looks as though they were carved out of marble for an unholy trinket. They all are sitting upon a blue background that looks like water. Below the monsters is the book’s title in bright yellow, with author Sarah Beth Durst’s name under that. The jacket design on this book is by Elsie Lyons, the jacket illustration by Larry Rostant, while the jacket texture is  © aekky/Shutterstock (gold); © Matt Antonino/Shutterstock (water); © Willyam Bradberry/Shutterstock (water); and © Caracolla/Stutterstock (marble). This is a very appropriate cover for this book, with the creature selection promising much. Overall grade: A

The premise: From the inside front cover, “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 fearless oyster divers of Belene, 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 aid the country or witches who will sacrifice themselves trying. No matter who they are, the women are sent to the same terrifying place — an island filled with bloodthirsty nature spirits. There, they are left without food, water, shelter, or any tools, except their own instincts and magic. Those who survive the Island of Testing will be declared heirs to the queen. But no matter if Mayara wins or loses, she knows the life she had dreamed of is now gone forever.” This sounds like it could be interesting: a fantasy Hunger Games where only women are the contestants. Overall grade: B

The characters: Mayara is an enjoyable character. She knows she has abilities, but she’s used them so rarely she has no idea what she’s capable of. And before you go there, no, she’s not off the charts insanely super powered, that’s not her character’s focus. She wants to reunite with her husband Kelo. Winning this contest and becoming queen is not even close to returning to the one she loves. I liked this slight deviation from other hero novels I’ve read. Mayara also has younger sister syndrome in that she feel she can’t live up to her older sister Elorna who was taken away and died on the Island of Testing not too long ago. Doubt is a good character trait for a protagonist and author Durst knows just how to hit this enough without going overboard. I was happy that Kelo is not a milquietoast spouse, nor is he a fighter. He’s an artist, but wants to do everything he can to be with his wife. I liked the clever way that Durst was able to keep him as a player in the book without him becoming some super warrior in the process. Two of the other women drafted into competing to become queen are Palia and Roe. They, too, can manipulate spirits, but learn their chances of survival are better if they work with Mayara. One of the characters has a neat twist that I really enjoyed. The first antagonist encountered is Lord Maarte who is responsible for filling Mayara’s paperwork to compete. He seems merely a tired pencil pusher, but as the book progresses he becomes much more. Queen Asana is the one responsible for keeping the islands free of spirits, though determines which areas would be best defended. She seems to be a particular kind of person, though she becomes something else entirely. Lady Garnah serves the queen and she was the one character I couldn’t fully get a hold of. Is she good? Is she evil? Does she merely serve whoever is in power? I couldn’t tell. However, she did have some of the best dialogue of the book, making her a character that kept me on my toes whenever she appeared because I didn’t know what to expect. The most visually frightening antagonists of the novel, more so than the spirits and leviathans that close the book, are the Silent Ones. These are the women who choose to serve the queen as her guards and enforcers rather then try their luck on the Island of Testing. They are clothed in black and wear white masks with holes for eyes. They never speak. They reminded me of tall and slender figures wearing Noh masks. They are a fantastic image and their presence on any page upped my anxiety considerably. This is a great collection of characters who have several enjoyable features and more than one or two surprise moments. Overall grade: A

The settings: The book journeys to several different island locations. These islands of Belene have a beach community of peaceful dwellers, where Mayara and Kelo live, the island of the queen, which is sumptuous in its details, and the Island of Testing which is a hellhole for anyone foolish to travel there because it’s populated by spirits instructed to kill. There are a few times when Durst has Mayara go underwater and that was really neat. That didn’t happen enough for me, but when it did occur it was very enjoyable. The major setting of the novel is the Island of Testing which isn’t just rocks, beach, and inhospitable land, there are also several caves and Durst makes traversing through them very exciting. I enjoyed the settings, though they were what one would expect of a fantasy novel or what they were named. Overall grade: B+

The action: Mayara’s exploits are the majority of the book. She encounters surprises due to the people manipulating and training her to get to the island, and once there she finds several dangers to overcome. I like how Kelo is involved with political intrigue in trying to get to his wife and I found myself wanting even more of his scenes because they were just as engaging as the physical difficulties Mayara has in overcoming the spirits. Needless to say, the action is very good. Overall grade: A+ 

The conclusion: There is an epic finale involving oversized creatures, political treachery, and a solid surprise for Mayara. This could be Mayara’s only tale of Renthia, but I would be more than welcome in reading more of her, and her supporting cast’s, adventures. Overall grade: A

The final line: Engaging characters, both good and evil, and magical menaces of all sizes make this a highly enjoyable read. Mayara is every possible trait to root for and deservedly so. What she has to best, be they inner or outer demons, makes this a page turner. A very entertaining read that left me wanting more. Overall grade: A

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Patrick Hayes was a contributor to the Comic Buyer's Guide for several years with "It's Bound to Happen!" and he's reviewed comics for TrekWeb and TrekCore. He's taught 8th graders English for 20 years and has taught high school English for five years and counting. He reads everything as often as he can, when not grading papers or looking up Star Trek, Star Wars, or Indiana Jones items online.
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