Dark Triumph: His Fair Assassins, Book II by Robin LaFevers. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.
Lady Sybella is deep in danger and intrigue. Part of it is because she has been trained by the convent of Saint Mortain to be an assassin.
Part of it is because her current assignment means she is living in the household of the nobleman d’Albret, a cruel, vicious, power-hungry man who is intent on capturing Anne, Duchess of Brittany, and forcing her into marriage so he can control her lands and her money. She is working on the side of the supporters of the duchess, and risks all to signal to the duchess’s troops that d’Albret is about to attack.
It is a dangerous place to be: if d’Albret discovers what she has done he will have her killed.
Lady Sybella is playing a dangerous game, but she knew that when she received this assignment. She accepted it, hoping that it would give her the chance to kill d’Albret.
D’Albret is her father. And no one knows better how much the man deserves to die.
The Good: This is a companion/sequel to Grave Mercy. Grave Mercy was about Ismae, another teenaged nun assassin sent out to under orders of the convent to help protect the young duchess and Brittany. Dark Triumph is about one of Ismae’s friends; and the next book, Mortal Heart, will be about a third friend, Annith. The events in Grave Mercy and Dark Triumph overlap, against two larger stories: the politics and battles of sixteenth century Brittany; and the mystery of Mortain.
“Saint Mortain” is the church taking an old god, the God of Death; and as first Ismae and then Sybella discover, Mortain is no myth. He is real, and he is their father. As daughters of Mortain — true daughters — their skills are not just the training in knives and death and poison that the nuns have provided. Sybella can sense people around her, feel their heartbeats; and she also can see the marque, a physical sign that only his daughters can see, that show a person is marked for death by an assassin. She (like Ismae before her) discovers that while the convent’s purpose is to serve Mortain, the nuns may not know everything about Mortain.
I adored Sybella! She is quite the different character than Ismae, who was a peasant girl rescued by the convent. Sybella is instead a noble woman, but that money did not protect her from the darkness within his father and the poison within his household. As Sybella herself says, “I did not arrive at the convent of Saint Mortain some green stripling. By the time I was sent there, my death count numbered three, and I had had two lovers besides.” Sybella is tough and hard; she plays the game; she does what she has to do.
And yet — Sybella has a softer side, one that she hides to the world. She has managed to get her two younger sisters away from her father’s household, so they are protected in a way she was not. When she discovers a maid has brought her younger sister to work, she arranges to help the girls escape, knowing the risks to the two young girls. That Sybella is so intent on protecting these younger girls should be a clue to some of what Sybella herself has been subject to.
Sybella helps an important prisoner escape, a powerful knight nicknamed “Beast.” He is wounded and she finds herself escaping with him. During that flight, Sybella is, perhaps for the first time in her life, beholden to no one: not to her father, not to her the convent. Oh, yes, she still has to make sure Beast gets safely to the duchess, and she is hardly alone — but she is not in the convent being told what to do. She is not in her father’s house, playing a role.
I loved, loved, loved that Sybella rescues Beast. She does not need rescuing; she can take care of herself; she can fight. I love that Beast likes Sybella’s toughness, but also that what she does, she does well, and she enjoys it. In short: he respects her. Yes, as they are fleeing the countryside, hiding from d’Albret’s forces and the French, there is tons of action and adventure, but there is also a growing bond between Beast and Sybella. A bond, an attraction, that Sybella knows can come to nothing because she is a daughter of Mortain, and she has dark secrets — heck, she hasn’t even been honest with Beast that she is d’Albret’s daughter.
So, yes, I loved the Sybella and Beast romance. Because it’s between equals, and it’s about respect, and it’s about admiration, and it’s about — well. I don’t want to give anything away. But it’s also about people being human, and accepting that in others. (That may be code for, among other things, Beast not caring that Sybella isn’t a virgin.)
Oh, and by Sybella “enjoys it”: it’s not that she enjoys killing people. She enjoys that she does something well. And she knows, thanks to the marque and her service to Mortain, and her own fierce moral code, that she is not killing innocents. The marque tells her people are fated to be dead at her hand; the truth she learns about Mortain, as well as her moral code, means she isn’t killing for pleasure. She’s killing when necessary, to protect those she loves and those she is loyal to. And she enjoys that she can do that: protect and defend.
And I also love how Sybella is not a victim. Some pretty terrible things have happened in her life; a few things shocked me. She’s been hurt, and that means she has scars and trust issues. But — she is not a victim. She’s a survivor.
As I mentioned, a third book is coming next year. Ismae made cameos in this story, so I’m sure Ismae and Sybella will appear, but Sybella’s journey and growth are complete in this volume. What remains open, to be resolved, are the future of Brittany and the role of Mortain. As I sad in my review of Grave Mercy, this is a time period and a place I knew very little about and I loved learning more about it. I’m really curious as to how this is all going to get resolved!
Don’t bother counting the “loves”; the answer is yes, this is a Favorite Book Read in 2013.