Author: Robin LaFevers
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Publication Year: 2013
Read: July 2013
Where It Came From: Library
Genre: YA-Historical Fantasy
Rating: 2.5 Daggers
The Quick and Dirty:In a 1489 Brittany where Celtic-like gods are worshipped as saints, the Convent of Saint Mortain welcomes the daughters of Death, and sends them into the world on assassin/spying missions. In the first volume of the trilogy, initiate Sybella, seemed to be descending into madness from her mysterious mission. This volume picks up her story as she rescues one of the knights important to the Convent's work in preserving the independence of Brittany under its duchess, Anne. Sybella gradually learns to trust in love and to separate her tortured past from the promise of a brighter future. I fail to be emotionally invested in the plot. Probably because the character I wanted to read about was absent for 53% of the book. Or because there were three plots that couldn't all be fully developed in one book...
The Wordy Version:“His Fair Assassin” is one of the oddest trilogies I can imagine: it sounds like a romance series, promises assassinations, yet is serious about its historical setting of the battles to keep Brittany independent of France at the close of the fifteenth century. The result is that I’m never quite sure whether to invest emotionally in the featured romance, the dark backstory of the main character, or the political intrigues in the setting. At least this is what I’ve come up with to explain why I haven’t completely enjoyed the series as a whole.
Because it doesn’t fully make sense that I don’t love these books. I imagine that Robin LaFevers composed a list of things that bother her in popular YA and made sure that she avoided them. Trilogies that drag out romances between couples that like each other from the middle of the first book? LaFevers has made a trilogy with different main characters so she can wrap her romances up before they need soapy disruptions! Teenage girl protagonists who need saving by paranormal boys? BAM! These girls are the ones with the powers, and they rescue boys! Love triangles between privileged and self-made suitors for the main character? Just one suitor!
But no matter how refreshing it is to see these deviations from the YA norm, the books don’t resonate with me, this failure being even stranger since I like the general premise. In case you missed the first volume, Grave Mercy, the trilogy tells the stories of three young women raised by the Convent of Saint Mortain to usher people to their true father, Death (i.e. be assassins).
Dark Triumph picks up the story with Sybella, who has been assigned to the household of the Breton Duchess’s traitorous noble suitor, D’Albret. Sybella’s latest mission is to free Anne’s loyal knight, the Beast of Waroch. Sybella’s mission goes awry, and as she and the Beast work together they fall in love with each other. The secrets that drove Sybella to the convent threaten to destroy Beast’s incipient love for her, and make her question her faith in Mortain.
Here’s the thing: this plot totally comes from a romance novel formula. Girl-too-damaged-for-love meets man who can break through her crusty personality and accept her for who she is. While they mutually kick some bad guys’ butts. Yet the romance is practically nonexistent. Since I am a nerd I made a spreadsheet of every page Beast appears in the book, and ranked the romance quotient of the page. It turns out that Beast is totally absent from the book 53% of the pages, and is merely present (but not furthering the romantic plot) another 28% of the pages. That means that all the romance of this romance plot is confined to 19% of the pages of the novel.
So what is the book ACTUALLY about, if not about the romance? It’s about Sybella separating her future from her seriously messed-up past, accepting love (in all forms), and killing people to keep Duchess Anne in charge of Brittany. For the first third of the book, Sybella’s convent-trained assassin skills are impressive and interesting. After that, they’re mostly used in battle settings instead of spy-work (not bad, but not quite as compelling as spying for me).
As for the historical setting, I’m obviously not the only confused reader. Things are so complicated that LaFevers has to provide a list of characters before the book begins (which would be much more helpful in the back, with page numbers to direct readers to the first description of the character). I could use a longer historical note reminding me about Anne’s suitors and wars. As it is, the story kind of jumps from Anne’s internal battles with D’Albret to welcoming the help of English troops for the fight against the French. But I think you’d be forgiven for being confused about this since it’s imbedded in the middle of Sybella’s own issues.
Which brings me to Sybella. Sybella was the coolest character in Grave Mercy —Ismae seemed like a fawn next to her, and Sybella seemed to be on the verge of going insane from her Serious Mission. Very interesting. By switching to Sybella’s point of view, the mysterious desperation around Sybella stops being so intriguing and starts getting tiresome. My notes on Sybella/Beast interactions are largely “S tells B a secret!” I realize now that it sounds like Gossip Girl, and if it does, it’s like what Gossip Girl would be if all the secrets were irrelevant to how the characters act. Beast is deeply in love within a few pages of interaction, and his position remains the same thereafter. Every secret that Sybella reveals makes her less mysterious and adds no tension to the S/B relationship.
So it turns out that my problem wasn’t that I wasn’t sure where to emotionally invest in the book; I was either too confused (historical wars) or too minimally involved (romantic lead absent for too long, Sybella’s dark backstory revealed to someone unconditionally in love with her) to be deeply invested.