12 June, 2013

Dark Triumph by Robin LaFevers

So, what's a little ridiculous about this is that I actually read an advance copy of this book in March and had the review ready to go at the time the book was released, which was mid April. And then real life interfered in a big three-strikes-you're-out sort of way, and I sort of forgot about the internet for awhile. SO. Here, at long last, is my review of Dark Triumph by Robin LaFevers. It's a bit shorter than my last few have been, because as it's probably clear I'm still struggling with posting more frequently here, I'm going to try a few shorter reviews in the hopes that they'll go faster.

If you read last year's Grave Mercy--and if you didn't, you should-- you'll remember the premise: 16th century Brittany, fighting France for its independence, and a convent of girl assassins (ordained because they are supposedly the daughters of the god of Death) working behind the scenes to usher that independence into reality... if the leaders of the convent are telling the truth about their divine inspiration, that is. The first book was about one of the initiates, Ismae, and how she began to unravel what the convent is actually up to and find her own independence in the process. Dark Triumph switches to a new protagonist, takes on a bleaker tone, and ramps up the intensity, although not quite as quickly as I would like.

I was hovering between three and four stars for a rating, and in the end settled on four, because of the book's context in a series focused around strong and courageous young women, especially set in a time when women had so little agency. The history is solid, cast of characters both varied and interesting, and I love YA girl protagonists who kick ass and take names without help or support from anyone around them. But Dark Triumph took longer to gain momentum than Grave Mercy did, so much so that the first half of the book could have been condensed to half its length without losing any of the story.

But once the book started moving, it moved. The plot picked up like nobody's business, and reintroduced a character from Grave Mercy to help it along. The Beast of Waroch was one of my favorites in the first book, like Sandor Clegane's emotional flipside-- scarred and fierce, but genial and always looking for the good in life. While I don't love that the series seems to be setting up these strong heroines only to make their stories focus around how they find love in unexpected places, I did enjoy the romance between these two. Sybella was at her most believable when she was with Beast, and I loved the scenes of them fighting together. What can I say? I have kind of a weakness for badass couples.

My only other complaint was that Sybella was too tropey, for lack of a better word. She was cold and scornful, full of hatred and detached from her own feelings with very little to temper or round out that harshness. She was Faith from Buffy without the wisecracking-- but the vulnerability that makes characters like that interesting didn't show up in Sybella until later in the book. It wasn't that her secrets were shallow or that she didn't have real trauma in her past. (Her equally damaged brother Julian was a good minor villain-- creepy, but with a deeper story.) But she wrapped herself in this persona of aloof ruthlessness, and it was clear that she was trying to convince herself she could become emotionless by sheer force of will even though she knew it was a lie. Her initial pretense at having no affection for Beast was exasperating because it was clearly not true, and (part of the pacing problem I mentioned earlier) she spent so long trying to avoid acknowledging it that once she finally did, she had to rush through deciding what to do about it.

Despite some challenges, I really enjoyed Dark Triumph, and was glad it ended on such a satisfying note. I felt certain Sybella would have to confront her human father again, and was pretty sure that like Ismae in Grave Mercy she would end up meeting her divine one as well, but I liked how both scenes were done. I liked that Julian got a little redemption, and that there was an acknowledgment that what poisoned him had always come from their father. I also liked that there was no unnecessary denouement-- the book ended on a note of action, and left me smiling. I find myself wishing the next book would be about Sybella too-- I'd be interested in the stories that girl had to tell.

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