Dark Triumph – His Fair Assassin – Book 2 by Robin LaFevers, HMH Books for Young Readers, April 2014 – 5 Stars by Shannon Kennedy
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. The convent views Sybella, naturally skilled in the arts of both death and seduction, 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. 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?
In this second installment of the His Fair Assassin trilogy, Sybella came to the convent of St. Mortain already a killer, half insane from the demands of her power-mad father who intends to steal the throne from the rightful ruler of Brittany, thirteen-year-old Duchess Anne. Forced by the convent to return to his castle, Sybella does her best to undermine him while she waits for permission from St. Mortain to kill him. When D’Albret tries to force Anne to marry him, Sybella determines to do anything to protect the girl, not simply because of her age and innocence; Sybella knows her father murdered all six of his previous wives including her mother.
Damaged by her past, Sybella may be a flawed character who longs for death at times and is angered because Mortain constantly denies her. Rage is the one quality that she consistently portrays and yet she also has an inherently kind heart which she vehemently refuses to admit. She pities those who stand up to her father and die for their principles yet she also attempts to help whoever she can to escape him, even if it’s only two orphaned household servants. Readers will want this poor, pathetic teenager to live, to learn that there is hope and she has a chance not only for peace but also for a happy, decent future, but how can this happen in her desperate situation?
To complicate matters, Sybella receives orders from the convent and the abbess to rescue Sir Benebic, the Beast of Waroch currently trapped and tortured in her father’s dungeons. She is to return him to the court of Duchess Anne. During this dangerous hunt, Sybella also discovers the extent of her ‘father’s’ horrendous plans. D’Albret intends a gruesome death for the valiant soldier and plans to send pieces of the man’s body to the teenage ruler. It’s a measure of her integrity that Sybella decides if she can’t get Sir Benebic out of the dungeon, she’ll grant him a merciful death, much kinder than the hanging, drawing and quartering described so effectively by LaFevers.
Using the means provided by the convent, i.e. drugs that cannot only kill but also the garrison of soldiers to sleep, she bribes the night-soil man for his cart. However, she doesn’t expect the so-called, Beast of Waroch to knock her unconscious and take her to Duchess Anne’s court with him. The journey lasts several days and Sybella finds herself drawn to the giant, battle-scarred warrior. It is symbolic of LaFevers’ skilled writing that she never allows her heroine to find the ‘Beast’ a super handsome, brilliant hero. Instead, Sybella consistently reminds herself of his physical flaws. When she insults him, he laughs, finding her more amusing than she appreciates. He also respects her lethal abilities. She’s as skilled with her daggers as he is with his sword which comes in handy when they’re forced to confront their pursuers. To her amazement, Waroch wants to protect her from her evil relatives, a new experience for a girl who has always defended herself.
Sybella lacks Ismae’s innocent belief in the convent, its leaders and the saint or god of Death. Because of her dysfunctional upbringing, Sybella doesn’t trust anyone and often feels betrayed since she was promised that her father, D’Albret has been ‘marqued’ for death and she will have the opportunity to kill him, the reason she returned to his environs. So, it comes as no surprise to her that when she and Waroch arrive at the Rennes and the royal court, the abbess plots to ruin any chance of peace Sybella may have found. With the country at war, she may be the only asset they have to spy on her traitorous father and Waroch may not have enough influence to keep her safe.
Fifteenth century politics become the backdrop for this unusual young adult alternate history. As before the setting of this book adds to the depth of the novel. Ismae and Duval are integral to the plot and it’s wonderful to watch their romance continue to unfold. Some readers may have trouble with Sybella and the Beast’s unconventional love story. His attempts to protect her aren’t ‘PC’ for our time, but remain historically accurate. Her unwillingness to share everything she knows creates conflict, but is perfectly understandable considering how much guilt she feels over the past.
Another problem may be her incredible ‘warlike’ abilities. She has an intriguing skill-set when it comes to killing others. Unlike most teen protagonists, Sybella doesn’t hesitate to dole out death and feels no particular emotion toward her victims. They get what they deserve. An odd element is that neither she nor Beast exhibit much survivor guilt or PTSD symptoms. They are warriors determined to see the war through to its end and hopefully they will win both life and love in the process. However, there aren’t any guarantees and these two characters accept that more easily than readers may.