Sunday, March 31, 2013

Review: DARK TRIUMPH by Robin LaFevers

We are in the middle of the Attack of the Assassins! blog tour, a week-long celebration of the His Fair Assassins series by Robin LaFevers and the release of the second book in the series, Dark Triumph. To check out all of the great events going on this week (and to enter a giveaway!) check out my introductory post.

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. Naturally skilled in both the arts of death and seduction, the convent views Sybella 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. Her father’s rage and brutality are terrifying, and her brother’s love is equally monstrous. 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?
It's heeeeeeeere! It's here, it's here, it's here. The sequel to my #1 favorite book of 2012 is finally here. Hot-diggity-dog! I waited many long months to get my hands on this book, and it was a sore trial for me to restrain from calling off work so I could sit and read uninterrupted.

But I've read it and finished it, so here are my thoughts to the best of my ability to transcribe them.

Dark Triumph
 opens near the climax of Grave Mercy. Duchess Anne and her forces have arrived outside of d'Albret's fortress to treat with d'Albret and Marshal Rieux. It's a trap, and Sybella manages to warn the Duchess and Ismae away just in time. From an action standpoint, we receive no new information. We know Ismae and Anne escape and that Anne's loyal soldier, the Beast of Waroch, is cut down.

From a character development standpoint, we learn so much more. We learn that Sybella is deeply emotionally damaged to the point of experiencing suicidal impulses. We also learn that she is experienced both in death and seduction in ways that Ismae never was. We learn that as part of her cover she strings along a lover named Julian who may or may not be trustworthy, and that no pretty female, no matter how young, is safe within the d'Albret household. And we learn that Sybella feels emotions and impulses deeply, to an extent that I wouldn't - couldn't - have guessed.

Initially, I wasn't sure how I would like Sybella as a character. In Grave Mercy, she came across as unhinged and suspicious. Though Ismae trusted her, I was convinced that Sybella was up to something devious, so the thought of being stuck inside her head for the entire story was both unnerving and intriguing. By the end of the first chapter of Dark Triumph, however, I adored her.

I was hooked on Sybella. I wanted to know more about her, about her life and her dreams and plans. Though they arrived at the convent at the same time, Sybella is decades older than Ismae in terms of experience and emotional maturity. I was overjoyed to learn that Sybella has a gift of her own. She can feel the souls of those around her, both living and dead. As she mentions at one point in the book, it's a gift that has served her well, for she has always needed to fear the living.

This is the point where I must in good conscience warn you all that this is a dark book. Really dark. Like, the-last-fourth-of-Bitterblue dark. It's enough to turn a person into a misanthrope. Dark Triumph takes all the death, suspicion, betrayal, and soul-searching of Grave Mercy, concentrates it down, and adds a heavy helping of physical intimidation, torture, attempted rape, and... well...

You remember Julian? Sybella's boy toy? She keeps him at arm's length for reasons that go beyond disinterest. Julian is more than just a handsome yet shady man. He is also Sybella's half-brother.

Yes. Sybella's family takes dysfunction to a whole new level. It's icky. Being YA, thankfully, everything is kept PG-13. You can check out my "Notes For Parents" to find out what to look out for, but at no point does one branch of the family tree graft onto another, if you get my drift. However, Sybella's world is one full of violence and depravity, which is reflected in this story. With the exception of a handful of decent men, the women of Dark Triumph must constantly be on their guard against members of the opposite sex on both sides of the battle lines.

While I found Grave Mercy to be a fun book despite its heavy themes, "fun" is not a word I would ever use to describe Dark Triumph. Better choices would be "beautiful," "well-written," "haunting," and "intense." If you're anything like me, there will be several points where you will feel compelled to set the book down and walk away for a breath of fresh air. You may also find yourself giving strangers the side eye, because humans are perverted, y'all.

Darkness. Depravity. Gloom. Turmoil. Depression. Death. That's Sybella's life. That is what she endured for fourteen years and what she allowed herself to return to on behalf of the convent. Is it any wonder that the woman is a little unbalanced? Yet this time, she is not alone. After the battle, Sybella received an order from the Abbess. D'Albret has taken a captive, and Sybella must free him.

Why the happy dance GIF? Because that captive is none other than my man, my #1 favorite secondary character from all of 2012, the Beast of Waroch. Beast is, by far, the highlight of the novel. Kind, gentlemanly (in his own way), and loyal, Beast is nevertheless far from the ideal romantic lead. He is described as tall with pockmarked skin, a closely shaven head, and a long, jagged scar carved into the side of his face. Instead of the dashing prince, he is an ogre. [To find out how I picture him, visit my Pinterest page.]

As you may have suspected, Beast's ugly outer shells protects a fiercely beating heart of gold. And they're a good match, Beast and Sybella. Best is renowned on the battlefield for his battle rage, a state that overtakes him and turns him into a killing machine. It took a swarm of d'Albret's men to bring him down. As such, he understands and even appreciates Sybella's own thirst for justice. Unlike Ismae, who was unsettled at the idea of taking a life, Sybella is often depicted as joyfully participating in battle, as Beast points out in one scene.
"I've never met a lady who enjoys her work as much as I do mine."

"My work?"

"Killing. Assassin-ing."
Have I mentioned that Beast is funny, too?

I loved watching these two discover the different aspects of each other and learn to care for each other beyond the affection of allies. If anything, the pacing of the romance is my one solid complaint against Dark Triumph. While the focus of the novel is (rightly) placed on Sybella and her own struggles, I wish I could have seen more development between Sybella and Beast. Given Sybella's struggles and the precedent of Ismae and Duval's slow burn, the "L-word" arrived much too quickly in this story for my taste.

Whereas Grave Mercy wooed me from start to finish, Dark Triumph builds on me more slowly. I love it now, but it will continue to make itself a comfortable place in the back of my mind, revealing itself to be more and more delightful with each new appraisal. A month after reading Dark Triumph, I still find myself pausing to examine it at odd times. I think about how much I loathe d'Albret, love Beast, feel for Sybella, and hate the abbess. Any book that inspires that much emotion in a reader is sure to stick around for a long, long time.

It's a scary thing, reading the sequel to a favorite book, but Dark Triumph did not let me down. It's a well-deserved companion to Grave Mercy, a welcome addition to my shelf, and a work that the author can be proud of. I strongly suggest anyone in need of a well-crafted, gorgeous historical novel to pick up both books in the His Fair Assassin series ASAP.

Points Added For: The handling of Sybella and her psyche, BEAST!!, being thoroughly engrossing and moving, a spot-on balance between the intricacies of Sybella's personal life and the overarching narrative of Duchess Anne's fight against the French.

Points Subtracted For: MORE ROMANCE! shouts the demanding reader.

Good For Fans Of: Grave Mercy, Bluebeard, quality historical fiction, the Graced series by Kristin Cashore (d'Albret is very Leck-esque).

Notes For Parents: Some language, incest, attempted rape, violence.

Buy The Book Now at The Book Depository, Free Delivery World Wide

Note: I received a digital copy of this novel from the publisher via NetGalley for review.

Don't forget to check out the schedule of events for the blog tour and enter to win your own copy of Dark Triumph or Grave Mercy!