Book Review: Dark Triumph by Robin LaFevers

As you might recall, I kind of fell in love with Grave Mercy, the first book in the His Fair Assassin series, earlier this year. So you can just imagine how excited I was to read Dark Triumph, the sequel and Sybella’s story.

I started and finished Dark Triumph in one day. If possible, I might have liked it even more than the first one, and that’s saying something, because I freaking loved the first one.

dark-triumphSynopsis courtesy Goodreads:

Sybella arrives at the convent’s doorstep half mad with grief and despair. Those that serve Death are only too happy to offer her refuge—but at a price. The convent views Sybella, naturally skilled in the arts of both death and seduction, as one of their most dangerous weapons. But those assassin’s skills are little comfort when the convent returns her to a life that nearly drove her mad. And while Sybella is a weapon of justice wrought by the god of Death himself, He must give her a reason to live. When she discovers an unexpected ally imprisoned in the dungeons, will a daughter of Death find something other than vengeance to live for?

Essentially this is a Beauty and the Beast story (and you guys know what a sucker I am for those stories), only it’s Beauty that’s broken on the inside. Beast may have a fearsome appearance, but his kindness and loyalty are never in question.

I absolutely adored Sybella. She’s harsher than Ismae, both in her actions and her narration, and she comes across as cold to other characters. However, that’s almost as much a mask as the seductress one she wears. She’s built up a number of walls and defenses for very, very good reasons.

Her background is absolutely heartbreaking, and it’s amazing that Sybella has put herself back together as well as she has. The scenes where she was at her home were tense and sickening, and an understandable desire for vengeance drives her for a large part of the book.

I loved seeing how she grew both on her own and through her developing relationship with Beast, and Beast himself was just as much fun in this book as he was in Grave Mercy. I loved that we got to spend more time with him here and learn more about him, because I enjoyed the hell out of his character in the previous story.

Sybella’s faith was also an important part of this story, but her relationship with Saint Mortain was different from Ismae’s because her role as one of his handmaidens is different, and I liked seeing her struggles and questioning.

If there was one thing that I didn’t like, it was the very end. It came about really abruptly, and I was frankly shocked to turn the page and realize there wasn’t any more. I wish it had been a little more fleshed out.

But really, that was my only complaint about this story. It was well-paced and well-written, and such a fantastic follow-up to another excellent book. I really, really can’t wait for book three in this series.

A to Z Challenge – G is for Grave Mercy

grave-mercyGrave Mercy caught my eye for a number of reasons. A YA historical romance set in the Middle Ages, something I have rarely seen. A secluded convent of assassin nuns. Political intrigue. An absolutely fantastic tag line: “Why be the sheep when you can be the wolf?”

Not to mention a serious-looking girl on the cover holding a CROSSBOW. (See image to the right.)

All of that conspired to get me to pick up the book. But what drew me in and kept me reading was the lovely, lovely writing. This was one of the rare present-tense books that sucked me in almost immediately and didn’t let me go. I absolutely adored it from start to finish.

Fourteen-year-old Ismae is rescued from an abusive marriage and delivered to the convent of St. Mortain, the god of death. There, she is given the option to become a handmaiden of Death, trained as an assassin to carry out Mortain’s work. Ismae jumps at the chance.

After three years of training and apprenticeship to the convent’s healer/poison mistress, Ismae is sent out for her first kill. But these missions bring her into conflict with the mysterious Gavriel Duval, who claims he is trying to ferret out a traitor to the new duchess.

As the convent is also looking for the traitor, Ismae is assigned to be Duval’s mistress in order to gain access to the royal court. Neither of them are happy with the agreement, but Ismae has an additional, secret order: to ascertain whether Duval himself is loyal.

However, all her training can’t prepare her for the numerous political machinations she will face or the new feelings Duval raises in her. And with time running out to secure the duchess’s throne, Ismae will have to rely on more than just her skills to protect her country.

There’s so much I enjoyed about this book that it’s difficult to know where to begin. Ismae has not had an easy life: her mother tried to abort her with a herbwitch’s poison, and as such she has a jagged scar that runs the length of her back. Her father beat her regularly, and then sold her into the marriage she escapes at the beginning of the book.

Her entire life has been out of her control, so when Ismae gets the chance to make a choice for her own future, she leaps at it. I loved watching her grow, as she became more confident in herself and her abilities as Mortain’s handmaiden. She’s extremely devout, but her faith grows and changes throughout the book as well as she prays, questions, and comes to understand more about what Mortain wants from her.

And throughout most of the book, Ismae is the one doing the rescuing, which was so very many kinds of awesome, to say the least.

The romance between her and Duval builds very slowly and very sweetly, and very believably, particularly considering we never go into his viewpoint. They constantly clash throughout the book, as they have similar goals but different ways of going about them. I loved the way they gradually came to admire and respect each other, which provided a lot of delicious angst on Ismae’s part as she tries to keep her head and heart separate and follow her duties to Mortain.

The historical setting combined with the slight twist of fantasy creates a fascinating world for the story. LaFevers weaves them together beautifully, drawing you in to the cloistered life of the convent and the more unstable, treacherous world of the royal court. Her writing style is perfect for this; the narration felt genuine and not once did I come across something that sounded anachronistic or that made me stumble.

At times, Grave Mercy reminded me of a (much) less adult version of Kushiel’s Dart, what with the various political threads, the first person POV, and a main character who acts as a spy in addition to something else. (This is a sign of praise, by the way; I adored Kushiel’s Dart and own the next two books in that series.)

I had minor quibbles with the book—I guessed the traitor very early on, and I think the reveal took a little longer than it should have—but by and large the rest of it was so well done that it didn’t bother me.

If political plots, assassin nuns, the series title “His Fair Assassin,” and romance sound like your cup of tea, then pick up Grave Mercy the first chance you get. It’s such a wonderful, well-written story, and well worth your time.