Normally, I don’t post reviews on books that aren’t yet available, but I’m going to make an exception here. Yesterday, I discussed Book I in the His Fair Assassins series, Grave Mercy, which tells Ismae’s story. Dark Triumph, which is Book II, overlaps just a bit and we see part of Ismae’s story from Sybella’s point of view (HMH, $17.99). This is an ingenious writing strategy; I was hooked immediately and I enjoyed reading the same scene from two different perspectives. Fast friends, Sybella and Ismae were both novices at the convent of St. Mortain, where they trained as assassins and handmaidens of Death. Dark Triumph is Sybella’s story, and it becomes increasingly apparent that the third novel, Mortal Heart (due 2014), will focus on Annith, a third novice in the convent.
While there are several similarities between Ismae and Sybella — villainous fathers, questioning faith, and romances that develop during journeys across the country side — Sybella has a distinct voice. She is more worldly than Ismae and although Ismae’s body displays the scars of her past life, Sybella’s scars are all internal. As the name suggests, Dark Triumph is darker and in many ways more graphic than Grave Mercy. The subterfuge that Sybella must live is torturous to read about, because of the physical and emotional violence she endures. However, her strength, and eventually her understanding, are admirable. While each book contains its own story and does not end on a cliff hanger, the overarching story of politics, history, and the quest to protect the young duchess of Brittany insure that you will want to start with the first book first, and then will be as anxious as I am to read the final (?) installment. I do feel a certain foreboding, because this can’t end well. We all know what happens to Brittany and France, but I’m certainly starting to appreciate the independent spirit that persists in Brittany today. The series takes advantage of Brittany’s Celtic heritage and introduces a host of interesting old-world gods. Dark Triumph is further engaging because it contains strands of two fairy tales that are closely associated with France. “Blue Beard” was one of nine stories included in Charles Perrault’s 1697 collection, Contes du temps passé (generally known in English as the Tales of Mother Goose). The animal bridegroom story is a familiar motif that is woven throughout literature from the classical period, but appeared under the title “Beauty and the Beast” in a 1740 story by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Vlilleneuve, who was one of the well-known circle of female writers of fairy tales in 18th century France. Although neither tale overshadows the innovative narrative that LaFevers has created, they demonstrate her engagement with Brittany’s mythology and folklore. Finally, there were a few minor plot points that were unnecessarily repeated from the first book. Nevertheless, I did develop an increasing respect for LaFevers’s writing in this second book. I rescind my apprehensive query about guilty pleasures. These books are good.