Friday, May 24, 2013

Review: Dark Triumph - Robin LaFevers

Dark Triumph by Robin LaFevers
Series: His Fair Assassin #2
Genre: YA, historical fantasy
Published on April 2, 2013
Published by Houghton Mifflin Books
Pages: 385
Read From: 5.19.13 - 5.20.13

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 the arts of both death and seduction, Sybella, the convent realizes, is one of their most dangerous weapons. 

But those assassin's skills are little help 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?


Cover Blurb: Yes or No? Yeah, there's a character impersonator on the front, and yeah, she's staring at me. But oddly enough, I actually do rather like the cover. For some reason, when a character impersonator is done like a painting or drawing, and not a real person photoshopped in, I don't mind it nearly as much. And let's face it - a cloaked girl holding a dagger is rather eye-catching.

Characters: I never disliked Ismae in Grave Mercy, but I got tired of her trying to play a role that she just wasn't cut out to pull off in a convincing manner. Also, Ismae professed to being naturally modest, and yet I never got the sense that she was sincere. Where Ismae failed as a protagonist, Sybella totally triumphed. She knows the art of survival; of taking on a persona to blend in to her surroundings. She's capable, she does what needs to be done, and she even takes pride in her work. Okay, I'm not really a fan of characters who enjoy killing, but Sybella is Death's daughter, so it would be a little weird if she were squeamish and didn't take some small measure of pleasure in slitting a person's throat. Sybella, of course, has her faults. Living the sort of life she has, it's only to be expected that she's a bit messed up. She often has to compromise her virtue to get a job done, and while she takes on the attitude of "it's part of the job," it doesn't keep her from willingly sleeping with her love interest later in the book. This is, perhaps, an instance of taking practicality a little too far. Even so, I couldn't help but feel sorry for Sybella, while rejoicing in the fact that at long last this series had a protagonist who not only did stuff, but also did it convincingly. Whatever haughty attitude Sybella takes on fails to be annoying because the Reader knows it's an act; she's trying to hide her own fears and self-doubts. Now, Ismae does make an appearance in Dark Triumph, and where I once was annoyed with her in the role of protagonist, I actually really liked her as a secondary character. A character I wasn't expecting to like as much as I did was the Beast of Waroch - the "principle" male of the story. Big hulking brutes rarely have personalities, but Beast had an astounding amount of character. He was an easy-going guy, protective of the weak, eager to charge into battle, even had a sense of humor, and really had a pretty gentle temper when the battle rage wasn't upon him. On top of that, he was actually a pretty decent guy. On the side of the villains, there's a number of people that are an absolute joy to hate. Just when I thought the Author had made d'Albret as lecherous and despicable and cruel as humanly possible, he would do something that would elevate my hatred level for him even higher. And Sybella's creepy brother Julian, who has a twisted "romance" with her, made my stomach nauseous. Even when the Author tried to redeem him in the end, I failed to see the good in him - he was just creepy.

The Romance: It doesn't take long at all to figure out that Beast is Sybella's love interest. And like with Ismae and Duval's relationship in Grave Mercy, Sybella and Beast's love grows mighty fast, to a point that is rushed. But what made this a lot more tolerate than in the first book was the fact that Sybella and Beast don't start out hating each other, and quite honestly - the two are a perfect fit. Both have experienced countless hardships, thus there is a deep understanding between them. For all of his ferocity, Beast has a forgiving nature, and Sybella is in need of that, since she cannot forgive herself. And they both take pleasure in their work.

Plot: Dark Triumph picks up quite literally where Grace Mercy left off, only now we are following Sybella d'Albret's narrative. The duchess of Brittany has retreated to Rennes after near capture by the ruthless Lord d'Albret, who is determined to marry the duchess and thereby take her power for his own. Sybella, daughter and handmaiden of Saint Mortain - the god of Death - and a ruthless assassin on top of it, is working as a spy for the duchess within d'Albret's household. It's easy enough; she is his daughter, after all. But even so, Sybella plays a very dangerous game, as she must curry her father's favor, as well as keep her brother Julian happy and free of suspicion. She could lose her life at any moment, but she's willing to take the risk, if it means an opportunity to slit d'Albret's throat. She's waited for this chance her whole life, but as time passes Mortain's marque fails to appear. Just when Sybella decides to take matters into her own hands, and risk her immortal soul by killing man without Mortain's blessing, the convent of Saint Mortain gives Sybella a new assignment: d'Albret is holding the duchess' champion, the Beast of Waroch, in his dungeons. She is to break him free and send him to Rennes, where he can stand at the duchess' side and raise the morale of her downtrodden troops. The problem is, the great warrior is practically dead from festering wounds, and when Sybella learns of d'Albret's latest plan for treachery, which could very well spell doom for Brittany, she realizes that she's going to have to give up her own personal revenge and travel to Rennes with the Beast herself. But the way is fraught with peril, as they avoid d'Albret's scouts and the invading French, and as Sybella tries to keep the Beast alive long enough to reach the duchess. Dark Triumph is a bit more of a personal journey than Grave Mercy was. There is still lots of political intrigue and exciting battles, but it definitely focuses much more on Sybella's emotional state and character growth. We get to know her thoughts and feelings very intimately, and as we Readers learn more and more about her past and what she has had to endure at the hands of her father and two brothers, you find yourself rooting more and more for her chance at personal revenge. The political backdrop of medieval Brittany on the verge of being taken over by the French just adds to the dramatic appeal. Because the plot is more emotionally-driven than event-driven, at times it feels a little slow. But because Sybella is a girl who doesn't just sit around, but wants to be in the thick of things, we don't miss out on any of the good stuff. There's plenty of evasion of enemies, intrigue, infiltration, sabotage, and skirmishes to keep this near-400 paged book from lagging.

Believability: I don't know all that much about Brittany's history, but the Author confesses in her Historical Note that she crammed several years' worth of events into one single year for the sake of the story. I can accept this, albeit a tiny bit begrudgingly, but only because I am a purist. For the sake of the story, it was a wise choice.

Writing Style: First person, present tense. I have expressed my dislike for present tense more times than I can count, but I'm going to surprise you this time. For once, I actually didn't mind the present tense at all. In fact, it fit the story really well and did nothing to lessen the poetry of the narrative or make it feel too modern. I was shocked at how much I liked it, especially since I really didn't care for it in Grave Mercy. Still, the style has a very poetic, authentic feel to it, and I applaud the Author for pulling it off.

Content: Like with Grave MercyDark Triumph has a constant sexual undertone. Nothing detailed ever happens, and what rape scenes there are are very rapidly interrupted in an extremely timely fashion. But the Author isn't afraid to talk about the lecherous actions of the men, especially d'Albret and Julian, who has romantic feelings for Sybella, his sister. Sybella has had to give herself to him to keep his protection, since Julian is the least worrisome male in her family, and she has had to use her charms to seduce assassination targets. Again, there are no details, but the sexual ambiance is there. At one point, Sybella and Beast sleep together (pg. 349), but it is also lacking in details.

Conclusion: With such an emotional rollercoaster, we Readers dearly want Sybella to get her revenge. And when d'Albret uses her two younger sisters as bait, the opportunity definitely arises. The climax doesn't totally skip over the impending siege of Rennes, though, so we get to see some of that action, too, as well as a final face-off between Sybella and her enemies. And it isn't disappointing. Dark Triumph is probably my favorite out of the two in the His Fair Assassin series that have been published. Sybella has her flaws, but she's a better protagonist than Ismae ever was, and I like Beast ten times more than Duval. However, the constant sexual undertone, while blessedly not explicit, is, well, constant, and I personally got a little tired of it after a while. And I'm all for likable flawed characters, but it seems like everyone in this had the same sort of flaw: an astounding lack of morals in some form or another, and I just wish there had been at least one character who didn't have that problem. Still, the plot is very intriguing, and we get to explore an awesome historical fantasy with a female protagonist who isn't afraid to do what needs to be done.

Recommended Audience: Girl-read, seventeen-and-up, great for fans of historical fantasy and fans of realistically strong female protagonists.

Others in the His Fair Assassin Trilogy:
1)Grave Mercy
2)Dark Triumph

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