Dark Triumph by Robin Lafevers
Published: April 2nd 2013 by Houghton Mifflin Books for Children
Source: ARC from publisher
Synopsis (Goodreads): 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?
My thoughts: I was all over the concept of Grave Mercy. I mean, assassin nuns who are daughters of Death? I was ready to fall in love on the first page. While it was one of my favorite books of 2012, I wished it had had more killing and thought it focused too much on the political machinations and not enough on character development for my taste.
Dark Triumph was still at the top of my anticipated sequels list, and it did not disappoint. It was a wild, action-packed ride and I connected with Sybella much more than Ismae. Briskly paced and impeccably written, this is a must-read for fans of historical fantasy.
PLOT and WORLD-BUILDING
Dark Triumph begins shortly before the end of Grave Mercy, so we see the critical battle that is the climax of the first installment in the series from Sybella’s point of view. Sybella has been sent by the Abbey back to spy on d’Albret, the man who raised her as her father. He’s also trying to seize control of Brittany by marrying the Duchess. Though Sybella fled to the Abbey to escape him, she returns with the assurance that she will be able to kill him with Mortain’s blessing, yet no marque appears upon him.
She is given a new mission from the Abbey—she must free the prisoner held in the dungeons, the man they call the Beast. Instead of returning to kill her father the night she manages to free him as she had planned, she embarks on a journey that will change everything with a man that not only accepts her, but challenges her to accept herself.
Lafevers states in the author’s note that she took many more historical liberties in Dark Triumph than in its predecessor, but I was still swept up in the time period. While a story based on old religion could easily veer into questionable territory for me, I loved the way all the saints, and particularly Mortain, or Death, were fleshed out in this installment. The mythology and fantasy aspects of the story evolve organically and are original without being overwhelming.
Grave Mercy was slow at some points, but Dark Triumph is action-packed, and there is plenty of death dealt out by our assassin nun. While Grave Mercy was a political drama, Dark Triumph is a much more personal story. Sybella has a dark past, and at times, verges on madness. The key events that have shaped her are only slowly revealed to us. Each step along the way revealed another clue about Sybella’s past and every revelation ratcheted up the tension.
Sybella is prickly. I am not going to try and sugar coat her. Lots of readers will likely prefer Ismae, who was sometimes naive and looking for approval, but I thought LaFevers really captured the dark, vengeful streak in Sybella and still had me cheering for her.
Not only was there sweeping external conflict in the form of battles and struggles to survive, there is also very complex internal conflict for the heroine. Sybella struggles with her relationship with her patron saint and father, Mortain. While she wants to believe in Him so that d’Albret, the power-hungry villain, is not her father, she also cannot understand why someone as evil as d’Albret and his cronies are not marqued for death. Why she wants to stay loyal to her Saint, she also wants to take matters into her own hands and exterminate them.
In addition to her paternal issues, Sybella also struggles with her own conscience. She relishes her work on behalf of the convent, even if she is not on good terms with the Abbess and begins to question her authority and her teachings. Perhaps the teachings of the Abbey are wrong, and it is not only just to kill if someone bears the marque of Mortain?
Beast is a fierce warrior with a gentle heart. Though he takes matters into his own hands on occasion and makes decisions for Sybella, he avoids the alpha male “I know what’s best for you” conventions. Even if he’d rather Sybella stay out of danger, he recognizes her as a competent assassin. I thought he was a unique and compelling male lead.
D’Albret was one twisted villain. Not only is he utterly vicious in battle and court, the way he has treated Sybella and others in the past is horrific. I wished we could have learned more of his motivation—did he only seek power for power’s sake? Why does he hate women so much? Is it just the misogyny of the time? These questions are left unanswered. I’m generally a fan of a more nuanced or balanced villain, but there’s no way to feel sympathetic for this guy.
I did thoroughly enjoy Ismae and Duval’s relationship in Grave Mercy, but I personally was much more invested in Sybella’s romance with Beast. Their attraction was slow to develop, and based on mutual admiration for each other’s character rather than physical attraction. They are impressed with each other’s bravery and devotion to family and not each other’s looks. In fact, Sybella repeatedly called Beast ugly, though she enjoys his smile and laughter.
It was nice to watch a heroine fall in love with a good man who shared so much in common with her and respected her rather than immediately swooning over his chiseled muscles and gorgeous eyes. Sybella was impressed with his leadership skills and dedication to his Duchess and her people rather than his status or riches. Sybella and Beast worked together as equals and partners.
Readers who like the characters to talk about their relationship will be satisfied by the many scenes in which Sybella and Beast share their past with each other and discuss their feelings for one another. These in no way slowed the action and prevented those frustrations I always have when the conflict/angst in a relationship comes from lack of communication. Sybella isn’t immediately ready to confess all her secrets to Beast, and there’s no reason to believe she should, given the nature of her past and how Beast figures into it.
THE BOTTOM LINE
I’m always going to read with a feminist lens, so it feel wrong to not discuss the His Fair Assassin series in these terms. The concept behind this series—killer nuns!—is inherently empowering for women, but that’s not the only reason I think it can be read as a feminist. I was really impressed with the treatment of Sybella’s sexuality in Dark Triumph. She’s experienced abuse and only ever experienced sex as a tool of survival or as a means to get close enough to kill a man, never as an act of love, but still manages to be very much in charge of her sexuality.
It is important for me to include a trigger warning for some readers. My sister lambasted me when I raved about Bitterblue but failed to mention how pervasive the themes of abuse were in the story. Though she loved the book overall, she was so upset and disturbed by it she had to call in sick to work the next day. In some books the synopsis makes it clear that there will be some unsettling conflict, but it’s not clear from the jacket copy that there will be this kind of content in the book, so I think it’s worth mentioning here. It’s obvious from the beginning that Sybella’s older brothers have a twisted relationship with her, and it may upset or be uncomfortable for some readers.
Sybella, Ismae, and even the secondary female characters control their own fates, have agency, and are fully formed characters. Dark Triumph even passes the Bechdel test—Sybella and Ismae may discuss the men in their life, but they also discuss the teachings on the convent, tactics of assassins, and even battle plans.
The first few chapters of Grave Mercy are amazing. I dare you to read them and not be immediately drawn into the world of this historical fantasy. As much as I loved the first installment in this series, it is Dark Triumph that I am most likely to reread, and I can’t wait to see the conclusion in Mortal Heart next year.
Recommended for fans of:
Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
Lumatere Chronicles by Melina Marchetta
Kimberly at Stacked: “The other things that distinguished Grave Mercy are here, too: political intrigue, action, murder, romance, secrets, bad people who turn out to be good, good people who turn out to be bad. It advances the overall storyline involving Duchess Anne and also creates some intriguing possibilities for the future of the convent and its assassin nuns.”
Rywn at Book Brats: “As much as Grave Mercy seemed to open up a whole world for us to explore, Dark Triumph seemed very narrow and pinpointed. Focusing more on Sybella than about the events going on around her, I was disappointed and wanted to see more of the wide cast of characters that we were introduced to during the first novel.”
Miss Print: “I didn’t realize how much I loved this improbable series about assassin nuns until I finished Dark Triumph. As great as Ismae’s story and voice were, Sybella’s is better. Dark Triumph is a grittier read with sharper edges but also more satisfying outcome.”