After reading about Ismae's journey to the sanctuary of St. Mortain's doorstep in GRAVE MERCY, I was thrilled to find out that Sybella's story was going to be told. In comparison, Sybella's journey in DARK TRIUMPH by Robin LaFevers was much darker and more action-packed than Ismae's.
Despite her abuse at the hands of d'Albret, the abbess forces Sybella to return to his household. Only later on in the book do readers find out that the cruel and merciless d'Albret is actually Sybella's father. As the story progresses, Sybella's long-repressed memories resurface and she relives them in a series of flashbacks that show d'Albret as a ruthless, unfeeling tyrant.
What I enjoyed about this book was how strongly LaFevers characterized Sybella, and the way she developed over the course of the book.
Much of Sybella's personality is shaped by a dark past, a fact that she makes no attempt to hide. She's fiercely independent and sure in her own skills, both in and out of battle. Sybella has no great internal struggle with killing people. She's merciless in the way she doles out death and takes a fierce pride in her ability to do so. Her scars and bruises are a well-earned mark of pride, borne of years spent honing her technique.
Sybella's relationship with the Beast of Waroch progresses from one borne of survival --- they must journey across the land to return to the Duchess's side --- to one of mutual respect and affection. Beast is bluntly described by all to be a largely ugly, hulking creature. Yet his heart of gold is unimaginable as he strives to protect Sybella as he fights alongside her. As Sybella's romantic interest, he's nothing like the knights in shining armor --- he's a true warrior, loyal and lionhearted to the core. Their slowly developing relationship progresses from grudging respect to genuine admiration. Beast grows to understand that Sybella is only herself when she's fighting off would-be assassins and foiling traitorous plots. He also understands that she's capable of protecting herself, especially after she rescues him from d'Albret's prison and protects him as he recovers from his injuries.
What I enjoyed about this book was how strongly LaFevers characterized Sybella, and the way she developed over the course of the book. LaFevers showed much of Sybella's background to illustrate how horribly she was mistreated and what terrors she had encountered. And while Sybella thought that her inability to act and stand up for others made her a coward, LaFevers makes it clear that Sybella displayed courage and strength just by surviving her ordeal. At the same time, Sybella's time with Beast allows her to let down her
emotional barriers and recover the parts of her that she had shut away to protect herself while she had endured d'Albret's household. Slowly, Sybella begins to trust people again, as she glimpses the good in humankind that was so absent from her life with d'Albret. She also
strengthens her friendship with Ismae as she is united with her at the duchesses' household. Sybella begins to heal and leave behind her memories of the d'Albret household and makes new ones surrounded by the people that love her.
Reviewed by Ashley L., Teen Board Member
Sybella is good at killing. Trained at the convent of St. Mortain, she wields knives and ropes with deadly accuracy. When she arrives at the convent, she is seeking refuge from a traumatic early life in the clutches of the cruel and powerful nobleman, Alain d’Albret. When she leaves, it is at the command of the abbess, who orders her to report on the machinations of d’Albret himself. Immersed once again with the tormentors and friends who she thought she had left forever, she must navigate the treacherous 15th century politics of the castle and beyond as she waits for the right moment to fulfill the most personal aspect of her mission: killing d’Albret. Robin LaFevers’ DARK TRIUMPH continues the historical fantasy story begun in 2012’s bestselling GRAVE MERCY. This time, instead of following the Ismae, LaFevers tells the story from Sybella’s point of view. And it gets a whole lot darker.
"While it may be difficult for new readers of the series to start at book two, readers who loved GRAVE MERCY are sure to find a satisfying sequel in DARK TRIUMPH, and new readers will be converts by the time they get to the third act."
The book opens in the middle of an action sequence. The duchess has refused to marry the wicked d’Albret, and is leaving the castle with her retinue. D’Albret, however, has other plans for her. When we first encounter Sybella, she is hurrying to a high tower to warn the duchess of the oncoming attack. On the way, she meets a young girl, left alone inside this snake pit of a castle during a time of great turmoil. Sybella’s compulsion to protect the innocent becomes apparent when she puts her mission on hold in order to deliver this girl to a safe place. As the story develops, dissonance grows between this aspect of her character and her concern that perhaps she isn’t just good at killing; maybe she even likes it. At the root of these two impulses lies the issue of justice, and this is the primary driving force behind Sybella’s decisions.
As an assassin nun of Mortain, the god of death, Sybella has been taught to kill only those who bear a marque, or a shadow somewhere on the body that only Mortain’s daughters can see. When Sybella realizes that d’Albret lacks a marque, she faces a moral quandary. Can she trust in a god who will not condone the death of a truly evil man? Can she defy the plans of such a god? If so, would killing him qualify as an act of justified vengeance or an act of bloodthirsty murder?
After spying from behind d’Albret’s curtains and arranging a few clever assassinations of his men, Sybella receives another order from the abbess. D’Albret captured one of the duchess’ knights on the day she escaped the castle, and the knight is being held in one of the dungeons. The abbess wants Sybella to rescue him. Wishing her new assignment had been a more direct order to kill d’Albret, marque or no, she devises a plan to spring the knight from his cell.
Fans of the first book will immediately see a payoff of GRAVE MERCY’s cliffhanger, but newcomers to the series may need some time to understand the characters and their relationships with each other. The author has included a list of the cast of characters and a brief description of their position and allegiance in the front of the book. While this helps a reader remember names, the main struggle for readers who are new to the series will be in understanding the backstory of these characters.
In fact, LaFevers withholds Sybella’s complete backstory until the final few chapters. It is in this final third act that the story gains real urgency and emotional resonance. After the slow pace of the second act, this comes as a welcome surprise. While readers will no doubt sympathize with Sybella throughout the book, her pre-denouement revelations will sharpen and deepen their emotional connection with her. These make her encounters with d’Albret and his household in the final chapters all the more riveting.
Since Sybella was raised in a hostile environment full of people intent on misusing and abusing her, sexually and otherwise, she struggles with the concept of love. An affectionate relationship, whether romantic or platonic, requires a certain amount of vulnerability, and Sybella has learned to suppress all hints of fragility in the hopes that this might ease her suffering. Some of the most touching moments in the book occur during interactions between Sybella and her female companions. There’s Tephanie, her lady in waiting, whom she asks to share her bed on a night when she is especially afraid. There’s Ismae, her sister at the convent, who washes Sybella’s hair and makes her feel comforted and safe. There’s the duchess herself and the validation that Sybella receives from the duchess for her heroism, despite her traumatic beginnings. In contrast to all of these is Julian, Sybella’s half-brother, who claims an undying passion for her that Sybella will not and cannot return, even though she is grateful for his protection and his friendship. Partially as a response to Julian, Sybella’s unwillingness to let anyone past her defenses is even more pronounced when it comes to people who may take a sexual interest in her. When she develops romantic feelings for a male ally, she must decide whether and how to express them.
While it may be difficult for new readers of the series to start at book two, readers who loved GRAVE MERCY are sure to find a satisfying sequel in DARK TRIUMPH, and new readers will be converts by the time they get to the third act. Sybella is darker and angrier than Ismae, and the intensity of the story reflects this. By the end of the book, Sybella’s body count must top twenty, at least. These aren’t the abstract deaths inflicted by magic spells, but the violent deaths of stabbing, strangling and spurting blood. The carnage serves as a backdrop to Sybella’s quest for understanding justice, morality and love, and it always has a purpose.
In addition to GRAVE MERCY and DARK TRIUMPH, the first two books of the His Fair Assassin trilogy, Robin LaFevers has written the Theodosia series for middle grade readers and the Nathaniel Fludd: Beastologist series. The next installment of His Fair Assassin will be released next spring, and it will future Annith, a sister of Mortain training to become a seer --- until she runs away.
Reviewed by Caroline Osborn on April 9, 2014