The Deepest Blue by Sarah Beth Durst

Mayara has lived her whole life knowing two things.

One: that she loves her best friend Kelo. Ever since they were children, she knew they were soulmates and destined to be together, and their love has only grown deeper over the years. Two: that she must never ever use her abilities to command spirits or draw attention to herself, else she will be discovered as a potential Heir and lose everything—including Kelo. Mayara knows all to well the price of her power—when she was just a child, her beautiful, brave older sister Elena was discovered for her ability to compel spirits  and given the choice offered to all Belene women of power. Elena could attempt the Trial—a month-long test in which she must survive a distant island overrun by wild spirits—or become a Silent One, sworn to wordless, endless servitude for the Queen of Belene and the Families that govern the island nation.

Elena chose the island and died—leaving Mayara and her family wracked with grief.

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Over time, Mayara learns how to honor her sister’s memory—she pushes herself to be brave like Elena, to dive deeper and swim harder than anyone else in her village. On her wedding day, Mayara embarks on the riskiest dive of her life, and though she triumphantly executes it… she also runs into a wild, powerful spirit and is forced to use her powers to protect herself. Turns out that single spirit was a prelude to a far more dangerous storm—a massive swarm of spirits that arrive at Mayara’s village during Mayara and Kelo’s wedding ceremony. Faced with the certain destruction of her village and death of everyone she knows, Mayara takes one more risk, and summons her power to vanquish all of the spirits in the storm… and in so doing, damns herself to discovery.

Though she and a badly wounded Kelo try to run, Mayara is caught and given her sister’s choice. Fearing her beloved’s death, Mayara chooses the Island. Armed with only her wits and with the company of eleven other potential Heirs, Mayara and her spirit sisters are sent to the Island—knowing only that the last twelve women to attempt the Trial all died. Together, Mayara and her new friends discover that nothing in Belene is what it should be—something is wrong with the Trial, and the Queen, and the Families that run the kingdom, and the women will do everything they can to save their loved ones and people from this wrongness. But they’ll have to work together and survive the Island first....

The newest novel from Sarah Beth Durst, The Deepest Blue is first book in a spinoff series set in the fantasy ream of Renthia. I personally was a huge fan of the original trilogy, and of The Queen of Blood (the first book in the series) in particular. Don’t worry if you haven’t read the original trilogy—The Deepest Blue can be read as a standalone and serves as a fairly seamless entrypoint to the Queens of Renthia. Of course, you’ll get more out of The Deepest Blue if you have read the original trilogy and for those fans, The Deepest Blue is a welcome return to a realm overrun by elemental spirits who want to kill all humans and are kept in check only by the power of a Queen, who compels them to obey. (Of course, a Queen is human and needs things like sleep, so when her concentration breaks, or at the farthest villages at the limits of her realm, spirits can attack and kill her people.)

Unlike Aratay (the setting of the original series), the archipelago kingdom of Belene has some very different customs in selecting its Heirs and its Queen—whereas children in Aratay discovered with power are enrolled in an Academy to train (think: Harry Potter Defense Against the Dark Arts on repeat), Belene women are given the choice to possibly die in a Hunger Games-style survival of the fittest trial on a desert island, or literally give up their identity, their voice, and their face and live as a Silent One for the rest of their days. It’s not a great choice, but it is part of Belene culture and tradition—and Durst does a fine job of establishing the island kingdom as unique and separate from the customs of the forest realms to the east. I love that a large part of this book is about power dynamics and change, but that Durst is careful to respect the customs she has created for her Belene characters and that sweeping change to conform to the ways of the Aratay isn’t something handled cavalierly or without cultural sensitivity.

But beyond just the setting, there are two reasons why The Deepest Blue works so well: main characters Mayara and Kelo. I loved reading about a couple that has no baggage, who are simply and truly devoted to one another, and who are motivated by love. There are no games here or power struggles, but instead, a foundation of mutual respect grown out of deep, long-standing friendship. I love that Mayara does everything in her power to be true to herself and what she thinks is right to save the ones she loves, especially Kelo. Similarly, I love that the artistic, kind-hearted Kelo is just as passionately devoted to his wife and will do anything—including try to persuade the Queen of Belene herself!—to spare Mayara’s life. Though the pair spend almost the entire novel apart, their drive to reunite is what propels the story forward. (And in all honesty, it’s just refreshing to read.)

There are other reasons why The Deepest Blue works. Take, for example, the fascinating power dynamics between the Queen (who has so much raw magic but actually no ability to protect her own daughter) against the noble Families (who are the true power in the realm and through extortion and kidnapping are able to control what happens in Belene). Or the existence of sleeping ancient spirits in the deepest blue--the darkest, deepest part of the sea--where the Queen must devote so much of her attention to keep all of Renthia safe.

The only real downside to The Deepest Blue is that it’s fun but a bit of a rehash of stories we’ve already been told in this series--but sometimes familiar is good, and I certainly don’t need an excuse to return to Durst’s world overrun by wild, murderous spirits.

In Book Smugglerish, 7 slumbering leviathans out of 10.