Title: Dark Triumph
Author: Robin LaFevers
Length: 385 pages
My star rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
Returned to the household of her sadistic and scheming father, Count d’Albret, by the abbess of the Convent of St. Mortain, where she took refuge after the traumatic death of her stepmother, Lady Sybella lives in constant anxiety and vigilance. She has only the promise that she can dispatch him in the name of their god to comfort her–until she receives new orders that she is to smuggle d’Albret’s gravely injured prisoner out of the city so that he may return to aid the embattled young Duchess Anne. Sybella obeys, though not without bitterness, and finds her plans rapidly spiraling out of her control.
Now this is the book I thought I was about to read when I picked up Grave Mercy. Some sequels suffer from Middle Book Syndrome; often, though, they surpass their predecessors. That’s definitely the case with Dark Triumph.
Everything about it was an improvement on the first book. The pacing, the plot, the characters themselves, all of it was better.
The tone and subject matter of this installment is, however, much darker than in the previous book. There, d’Albret was painted as a menacing threat to the duchess’ safety. Here, he is portrayed as cruel, twisted, and utterly merciless and poses an immediate threat to almost everyone. Every time you think his depravity has reached its zenith, he does something yet more despicable. Rape, murder, torture, incest–it’s all in there, though given that this is still YA, it’s not quite at Game of Thrones levels. Yet often, despite how grim and disturbing many scenes are, they’re rarely used for shock value and almost always made me feel deeply for Sybella.
Where Ismae floated around the duchess’ court, caught up in political intrigue and sometimes reduced to wringing her hands alongside young Anne, Sybella’s story is fast-paced and full of action. She has a quick wit, a sharp tongue, and sharper knives, all of which she uses–effectively and often. Usually, jaded characters with attitudes (and smart mouths) like Sybella’s get on my last nerve, but I really liked her for some reason. I rooted for her the whole way through. She is always an active heroine, come what may, and in YA in particular, that’s refreshing. There are only a few inconsistencies in her voice and the narrative at large (i.e., she tells readers-repeatedly–that she thinks she is unable to die because “Death rejected me twice already,” but then frets and fears for her life time and again), enough for me to notice but not enough to detract from the overall story.
I also liked that Sybella is never in thrall to the convent in the way that Ismae was and that she questions everything and follows nothing blindly.
The Beast of Waroch, just an entertaining supporting character in Grave Mercy, also has a much larger role in this book, and he’s delightful. He has the funniest line, too:
“I’ve never met a lady who enjoys her work as much as I enjoy mine.”
“Killing. Assassin-ing.” (140-1)
The plot is at once straightforward and tangled, built upon several different mysteries and secrets that Sybella reluctantly reveals over the course of the novel. I found some of the twists quite unexpected and well-done–there are definitely surprises in the last hundred pages that I would never have expected. And even though I professed to dislike the idea of assassins, in general, in my review of the last book, in this one, I was delighted that Sybella doesn’t just talk about being an assassin–she is one, and not just in fits and starts. She never seems to need nearly as much assistance as Ismae did, either.
There is also a love story, and while I think it’s handled better in this book than in the last one, it’s still kind of predictable. And by “kind of,” I mean that I saw it coming twenty-five pages in. However, I never felt like Dark Triumph was on the verge of becoming a romance novel–unlike Grave Mercy–so that’s a plus. Maybe there won’t be any love story in the final installment at all. I won’t hold my breath though.
My biggest complaint from Grave Mercy, that LaFevers twists a real historical figure (D’Albret) into a grotesquely evil caricature of a man, is only more pronounced here. However, she openly acknowledges the many liberties she took with his character in the Author’s Note and that she used him as a stand-in for Bluebeard, so I’ll give her props for that at least!
Despite being much tighter and more focused, I do have to admit that Dark Triumph begins to unravel at the seams a little in its last fifty pages. The conclusion(s?) seems somewhat rushed, and there’s a major Deus Ex Machina-type moment involving Mortain, just as there was towards the end of Grave Mercy. Unfortunately, this leads to several sudden and poorly-explained revelations for Sybella and raises questions for the audience that are never answered. (This especially bothered me because I still have plenty of unanswered questions about this universe from Grave Mercy as it is.) The final scenes could have been extended considerably (after all, the first book was almost two hundred pages longer than this one!) to give a strong novel the strong, solid ending it deserves instead of the rather flimsy one it actually gets.
Otherwise, Dark Triumph is a very intense, dark, but nonetheless entertaining read. I’m reluctant to leave Sybella, so compelling and sympathetic a heroine, behind in the last book of the series, but maybe Mortal Heart will be as pleasant a surprise as this one is.
P.S.: This book also deserves an infinitely better cover (just as the last one did). Alas, alack.