Review: Dark Triumph by Robin LaFevers

Dark Triumph by Robin LaFeversFormat read: print book borrowed from the library
Formats available: ebook, hardcover
Genre: YA historical fiction
Series: His Fair Assassin, #2
Length: 405 pages
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children
Date Released: April 2, 2013
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

Sybella’s duty as Death’s assassin in 15th-century France forces her return home to the personal hell that she had finally escaped. Love and romance, history and magic, vengeance and salvation converge in this thrilling sequel to Grave Mercy.

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?

My Review:

“Teenage ninja assassin nuns!” It’s still a concept that screams epic fantasy, isn’t it?

crouching tiger hidden dragonWhile Robin LaFevers’ series His Fair Assassin may read like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon set in medieval Brittany, there’s still no magic. It’s still historical fiction. Unless you count the heroine’s dreams of visitations from her god-saint, Mortain, as magic.

On the other hand, contemporaneous stories from the same period abound with people who thought they had spoken with either God or one of his saints. Why not a nun from the convent of death?

Death is a saint, Mortain, in this only very slightly alternate Middle Ages. The series opens with the truly awesome Grave Mercy (reviewed here) and like many readers, I have been eagerly awaiting the second installment.

grave mercy by Robin LaFeversGrave Mercy made the political machinations of late 15th century France and Brittany personal by making the reader see them through the eyes of the Mortain-trained assassin Ismae. She provided a compelling perspective on events that happened historically.

Dark Triumph illuminates what happened next, but the events that unfold are from a blank spot in the history. Anne of Brittany, the important personage, had fled the scene. History does not record much of what happened to the places and people she left behind.

Into this gap walks another of Mortain’s disciples. All of the assassins are women who would otherwise not have much agency in the medieval world, and it’s part of what makes them so fascinating to watch.

Sybella is the daughter of Anne’s greatest enemy, Alain d’Albret. In Dark Triumph, Sybella’s father is the person who has betrayed Anne, and is the person from whom she flees. He is also a precursor of Bluebeard, a man who has murdered all of his previous wives. (The man makes Henry VIII look positively benevolent!) One of the fascinations of this series is where the real history overlaps (and doesn’t) the fictional.

The abbess of Mortain’s convent has sent Sybella back to her father to spy out his secrets. She’s done this knowing that Sybella’s father abused her before, and will do so again the moment she returns. Sybella goes with the promise that she will get to assassinate her father when the time is right.

The abbess has lied to her. It is not the first time.

Instead, Sybella receives word that she is to free a prisoner in her father’s dungeon. This prisoner, the Beast of Warnoch, will rally troops for Anne of Brittany, if she can save him.

Of course, if she does manage to save him, her position as a spy will be revealed. Sybella decides that she will kill her father or die trying. She would rather be dead than let herself be tortured again.

Instead, the Beast kidnaps her. He ruins her plans. He saves her. And he keeps doing it, over and over again. Even after he discovers that she is the one responsible for his sister’s death.

Escape Rating B+: The freshness of the entire concept was so amazing in Grave Mercy that I was absolutely blown away. Dark Triumph still tells a good story, but it is an incredibly dark one.

One of the weaknesses of the first-person perspective is that the reader only knows what the heroine either tells another character, or chooses to reveal in self-talk. Sybella, the heroine of Dark Triumph, has learned the trick of making sure that her face and even her thoughts reveal nothing of her inner turmoil. It’s the only way she has been able to survive her horrific childhood.

But it makes her secret-keeping very murky, because she keeps a lot of things secret from herself–most of what she has endured is too painful to think about. Her past is shrouded in mists and pain. We know that it was awful, but we lose some of the ability to empathize, and we also miss some details in the backstory.

Sybella’s story is so full of drama, and the potential for tragedy, or triumph, that it is impossible to stop turning pages.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

Grave Mercy

Assassination has often been a tool of politics throughout the centuries. There is a classic quote that “war is the continuation of politics by other means”. Assassination has historically been one of those “other means”–sometimes as a way of starting the war, sometimes as a way of stopping it.

But seldom outside of fantasy have readers had such a god-ridden heroine’s journey to follow, with an assassin as that heroine.

The heroine is Ismae Rienne, and the book is Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers. It is the first in her series about, as the author’s website puts it “assassin nuns in medieval France”. That series is titled His Fair Assassin.

It’s historical fiction, not fantasy or science fiction. But Grave Mercy is still quite a trip.

Ismae grows up in a tiny farming village in Brittany. Not France, Brittany. That’s important. Brittany was still independent in the late 1400s and many people still clung to the old ways and the old worship. The old local gods were called “saints” by Ismae’s time, but people still brought them offerings.

Brittany was an independent duchy, and she wanted to remain that way. The tide of history was against her, but the tide wasn’t all the way out, yet.

Ismae was born with a significant scar on her back. Everyone in her superstitious town saw it as a sign that Ismae was the daughter of Death, literally, the guy with the scythe, Mortain. Why? Because that scar represented the effects of the drugs her mother took to abort her, drugs that failed. Only the child of Death himself would have failed to die.

Instead, Ismae spent her early life abused by everyone around her, including her father. And when it came time for her to be married, her father sold her to another brute, one who intended to kill her the moment he saw her scar.

But she was whisked away by Mortain’s followers to the Convent where his assassins were trained. After three years, she was sent on her first assignment. And thus became embroiled in the realpolitik for which the Sisters had barely prepared her.

Anne of Brittany‘s court turned out to be a spiderweb of intrigue. And even worse, the man the convent sent with her both for her to spy on and as her cover, Gavriel Duval, well, Duval is not what he appears to be. The Convent believes he must be betraying the Duchess, but Ismae knows he is not.

Which means that someone else is. Ismae must find the real traitor before he, or she, brings down the ducal house of Brittany. And Ismae must decide where her loyalties really lie.

Ismae is only seventeen. The Duchess whose realm she must protect at all costs is fourteen. The future rests on them.

Escape Rating A: This was one of those books where the pages fly by. Which was excellent, because there are a LOT of pages. This is a story that drags you in and doesn’t let you out until it’s wrung every emotion out of you.  At the end you’re completely spent and you feel satisfied, and slightly disappointed because you have to leave the author’s world.

This is historical fiction, not fantasy. The historical characters and the place and history behind this story did happen. Anne of Brittany, and the Mad War, and the fight over who she would marry, all happened. Gavriel Duval, Ismae and the Nine Old Gods or Nine Saints are fictional, but the blending of the fictional into the historic is seamless.

Grave Mercy reminded me of Maria V. Snyder’s Poison Study, the young assassin’s training and first target story, except that Snyder’s story is fantasy. The seriously politically insane fantasy version is Kushiel’s Dart, although that is in no way YA, and Grave Mercy and Poison Study both ostensibly are.

Grave Mercy is a story you won’t want to let go. It’s an excellent thing that the author is returning to the world of His Fair Assassin in the Spring of 2013 with Dark Triumph.