Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Full of Joy and Triumph and Victory

This review is for those who have read or are familiar with the previous book, Grave Mercy, or don't mind knowing some spoilers for it. Dark Triumph, however, will remain spoiler-free.

Dark Triumph
~Dark Triumph~
His Fair Assassin
Book 2

By Robin LaFevers
Amazon ~ Powell's ~ Jan's Paperbacks

Vengeance is Divine.

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?

Hold on to something because this book hits the ground running. Coming fresh from Grave Mercy, I knew a little of what to expect, but that introduction threw me for a loop. Whereas book one started slowly, building up the world and introducing the characters one by one, Sybella's story starts right in the thick of things and doesn't slow down once. Even continuing straight off the last book, I still had to take a breath, get my head in the game, and start over after the fourth chapter.

But enough of comparisons, let's get down to what this book offers on its own.

Sybella is a heroine unlike any I've read before. Enveloped in a past too dark for even her own mind to handle, she must put duty ahead of terror in order to gather information and ultimately kill those who wage war against her friends and her Duchess. And did I mention that the target of assassination is her own father? Sybella's past weighs heavily on her throughout the book, and yet she still manages to be witty, sarcastic, dutiful, and strong in both body and will. There are times when she can be a bit mopey (and justifiably so), but these are few and far between and only serve as a reminder at how much she has to overcome both from within and without.

While Sybella is very independent, even she needs a little help now and again, and she receives most of her help in the form of Benebic, the Beast of Waroch, or just Beast for short. Though he had a small part in the last book, here is where we really get to see him in action. Beast is essentially the medieval version of The Hulk: whenever his battle lust is triggered, he won't stop until he's taken down everyone in his path. But outside of his legendary battle-mode, he is kind, compassionate, and every bit as dutiful as Sybella. Though he's not the most gorgeous hunk you could fall for (quite the opposite, actually), he's definitely going on my dream-guy list for his heart alone.

Obviously these two characters are meant for each other, which brings me to their romance. I thought it worked out pretty well on the whole. I was glad to see it wasn't re-hashing the love-hate relationship that Ismae and Duval had in Grave Mercy. It's still a bit cliche, but it still feels natural both in development and in how the characters react to it. It doesn't change them, at least not in how they act, but rather in how they see themselves and their futures. It's definitely more mature than what I've read in more contemporary (including modern fantasy/sci-fi/paranormal) young adult literature, but it's still very relatable and understandable.

Speaking of more mature romance, there is the issue of sex in this book. Let me assure you, there is absolutely, positively nothing on-screen in terms of sex in this book, but there are quite a few references to it happening off-screen both in forms of rape and incest as well as consensual. Seduction is one of the main tools that Sybella uses to her advantage, even though it doesn't always end in a bedroom. And there is even a mention of a pregnancy well below 20, which technically is fairly normal for the time period. Still, if you don't think your children are quite old enough to discuss these sorts of topics, you might want to wait until they are.

On that note, it should also be said that this book's title is a great indication of the contents: this book is dark. The main character suffers from a past she can't even fully remember, her brother makes sexual advances on her throughout the book, she has to deal with fearing and hating her own father yet seeing so much of him in herself, not to mention the war which is going on. There are issues with faith, with duty, love, lust, bloodlust, death, madness, sorrow, fear, self-loathing, and trust. All are well worth reading about and addressing, but again, not all ages are quite ready to deal with them yet. Not to discourage anyone from reading it, just encouraging those who do to be in the right frame of mind going in.

I think the argument could be raised of whether or not this book, and really the series as a whole 'fits' the Young Adult label. The author has talked on this herself, defining the genre (or age-range) as more a coming-of-age for mid-to-late teenaged characters. I personally support the classification of YA for these books, but I can definitely see the mature content and dark tones of the books getting them pushed to adult shelves. On the one hand, I think it's great because these books should be read by adults — they are complex and fun, contain historical characters and events, and are phenomenally written. But on the other hand, I hope these books' target audience isn't deprived of the same complexity, fun, history, great writing, and insight that can be gained from these stories.

Backing it up a bit, I really appreciated how Ms. LaFevers addressed the historical issues in her story. It's true that some liberties have to be taken in order to write a story about Assassin Nuns, but the fantastical aspects really are kept to a tolerable minimum, with more emphasis being placed on the political and strategical nature of running a country and conducting a war, that is when we're not focusing on the personal stories of our characters. Still, a lot happens in this book as far as the escalation of the war, which makes it a very exciting story, but a little too exciting when you really examine it closely. LaFevers explains in an author's note that she took some liberties with the dates, compounding about 2 years of 'political happenings' into a few months. She also includes some facts about the Count d'Albret as well as a bit of the etymology of 'saboteur'. Isn't history (and writing about it) fascinating?

In terms of being a sequel to Grave Mercy, Dark Triumph both works and breaks those bonds. I believe because of focusing on a completely new character, someone could pick this book up first and backtrack to Ismae's story without much issue. Obviously by reading the events out of order, they would know much of what happened in the first book, but they wouldn't know how or why it happened. Each book gives its character a starting point and an ending point completely separate of the events surrounding them. Also, Sybella is a completely different person than Ismae, requiring a different path to bring her to enlightenment, giving us elements that are both familiar and yet completely new. I can hardly wait to see what the next installment has in store for Brittany and for the last of our trio of assassins, Annith.

Overall, a fluffy book this is not, but Dark Triumph is definitely a worthwhile read. Fans of Grave Mercy will find many familiar faces, and are sure to fall in love with many new ones as well. I'd definitely recommend this to YA readers who enjoy strong heroines, historical settings, romance, and a hint of fantasy. Mature themes involving seduction and sex (occurring off-screen), and assassination and war (occurring on-screen) might keep some younger readers at bay, but I'd say it's appropriate for high school and older, which is its target audience anyway. This is a heavy book which is sure to stick with you well after reading it, but despite the darkness which lurks throughout, you'll most certainly take away the feeling of triumph.

Approximate Reading Time: 6 hours

Audiobook Review
Read by Angela Goethals
Length: 13.7 Hours
Listened at 2.3x Speed

I actually started listening to this at the same speed as the last book (2.5x) but between it being my first reading (thus I was not as familiar with what was happening and who we were dealing with) and it being rife with many, many new characters at the beginning, all with foreign/French names, I quickly had to backtrack and start over at a slower tempo. Thus, despite it being shorter than the last book (by about half an hour at normal speed), it actually took me about the same amount of time to get through. This book is packed.

I was very excited to learn that this book would be read by a new person. Not that the last reader, Erin Moon, did anything wrong, but I was pleased that Sybella would have a new voice reading for her so that we could further distance ourselves from Ismae's story. Ms. Goethals has a darker tone of voice, perfectly contrasting the lighter, more naive way Ismae had about her. She also had more ease of transitioning between the general English speech and narration and the French-accented words and names. A better flowing narration on the whole.

Adding to that better flow were better decisions by the director/publisher. Firstly, while not taken out completely, the silence that came at every track break was greatly shortened. I'm still unsure why these pauses are there at all, but at least they only lasted a couple seconds instead of 5+ from the last book. Secondly the book was not re-written to include every contraction under the sun. I can't tell you how relieved I was to find the historical tone and the author's original writing were not tampered with this time around.

Overall, the narration was sublime, giving full emotion and proper depth to the characters, as well as sticking to the author's original vision in terms of language. Those used to audiobooks will no doubt enjoy this recording, and even with its flaws, I think this would be a welcome introduction to audiobooks for the uninitiated as well. I greatly look forward to seeing what the third installment holds for us.