Alaya Dawn Johnson’s 2007 debut novel Racing the Dark is the first of the Spirit Binders secondary world fantasy series.
The great elemental spirits leave chaos in their wake. Centuries before, the islanders dealt with them by binding the great spirits, death, fire, water and air, into forms abhorrent to the spirits but tolerable to the humans.
Born on a backwater island, Lana would have been content to be just another diver among many, talented but not remarkable. Instead, her rite of passage into adulthood marked her as extraordinary. She will be no mere diver. She will be a harbinger of doom.
Lana does her best to avoid destiny, concealing the second, blood-red, jewel she was granted during her initiation dive. As far as her family and neighbours know, she recovered a single jewel and is marked out for no particular destiny. Fate will not be cheated. As calamity begins to stalk the island, Lana discovers she has an affinity with death.
When Lana falls ill, one-armed witch Akua sees her opportunity and offers a trade to Lana’s mother. Lana survives but the cost is service to the older, wiser woman. Akua keeps her reasons for her interest in Lana to herself, as well her ultimate purpose for the girl. Akua is far more knowledgeable about magic than Lana, far more familiar with the sacrifices great magic demands.
Lana’s mother falls ill herself. Now it is the daughter’s job to save her mother, using magic whose price becomes clear only when it is too late. Lana flees, stalked by death itself. She runs from her doom. She runs towards her world’s doom.
Early on, a teacher named Kohaku offers to take Lana with him when he returns to the big city of Essel. Readers may expect an Earthsea-esque tale of a magically talented student at mage school. That’s not how it works out, because Lana’s loyalty to her family trumps her personal ambition. Kohaku does not take rejection well.
He had offered to rescue her, but she hadn’t been smart enough to want rescuing.
If he seems like a pompous dick, be assured his condescending arrogance is the least of his shortcomings.
If you’re uncomfortable with the lengths people will go to protect their loved ones, or to get recompense when they fail to protect those loved ones, this may not be the book for you. It gets dark pretty quickly; Lana’s mother prostitutes herself to afford medicine for Lana. Lana bargains with death to save her mother.
To make matters worse, there’s no guarantee any of the extremes will succeed. In the end, Lana’s mother has to give Lana to the witch to save her. Other characters have to settle for revenge because they find out too late the predicament their loved ones are in. Failure on an epic scale is always an option.
Given the elemental spirits’ exuberance about expressing their nature, I wonder how the humans lived when the spirits were free. Poorly, one imagines, repopulating the islands from refugia spared the full effects of the latest boisterous gambol. It would have been a lot like living in N. K. Jemisin’s Stillness. It is possible, given the events in this book, readers got to find out in the sequel.
Racing the Dark is available here (Amazon). As far as I can tell, either there is no Kobo edition or Kobo’s dreadful search engine has successfully hidden it.
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