By R.L. LaFevers
Publication date: April 2, 2013
Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 400 pages
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. Naturally skilled in both the arts of death and seduction, the convent views Sybella 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. Her father’s rage and brutality are terrifying, and her brother’s love is equally monstrous. 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?
This heart-pounding sequel to Grave Mercy serves betrayal, treachery, and danger in equal measure, bringing readers back to fifteenth century Brittany and will keep them on the edge of their seats.
— Goodreads.com description
I LOVE BOOOOOOOOKS!!!!!!!!
Sorry, nerding out over Dark Triumph by R.L. LaFevers. *Composes self*
I loved Grave Mercy, the first book in this series, and the moment I picked up Dark Triumph, I was gleefully transported back to LaFevers’ world. I sometimes get disappointed when I fall in love with characters, but later hear they aren’t going to be front-and-center in the sequel. But like with Marissa Meyer’s Cinder and Scarlet, for example, my worries about this series were so so so unfounded. Because there is so very much to love about Sybella.
For me, the highlight of this story was slowly uncovering the truth about her traumatic childhood. Oh, Sybella, I want to reach through the book and hug you, girl. The fighting is great (escape through the woods!), the setting fascinating (castles!) and the inner turmoil Sybella is dealing with is extremely compelling (revenge!).
But — one thing — I didn’t find it as swoony as Grave Mercy. It made no difference to my enjoyment of the book whatsoever, but definitely worth noting (sorry, Beast!).
And, as an extra bonus…an outtake from the books that made me go “WHOA!” Thanks so much to the author for sharing!
We find Annith on the stony beach. She has stripped out of her habit and stands in her shift, scrubbing herself over and over with handfuls of salt water and sand. I decide it is an excellent idea and join her, only too glad to wash the taint of the day from me.
None of us go to dinner that night. Instead, Sybella sneaks back into the convent, “For supplies,” she says mysteriously. She also thinks to grab our cloaks, and I am heartily grateful for a chill wind is blowing off the ocean.
When Sybella returns, Annith does not even look up. “I’m not hungry.”
“Good, because I did not bring food.”
“Then what did you bring?”
A sly triumphant smile appears on Sybella’s face as she pulls a jug from the sack. “Unwatered wine.” Annith’s eyes grow wide in surprise and begrudging admiration. Sybella hands the jug to Annith. “Drink.”
Annith drinks. “It will not cheer me up,” she says as she sullenly hands the jug back to Sybella.
Sybella pushes it back. “Drink again.”
Annith sighs and does as she is told.
At last Sybella takes the jug from Annith, wipes it with her sleeve, then passes it to me.
The jug is awkward and heavy and it takes two hands to hold it up to my mouth. When I tip it back, I get a mouthful of the sweet, strong stuff and another mouthful dribbles down my chin.
Sybella laughs and takes the jug from me as I wipe my chin. She raises it gracefully to her mouth, takes a swig without spilling a drop, then passes it to Annith. Clearly she has had much practice at this.
“I know you are trying to make me feel better, but it will not work. It will not make me forget that my paltry experiences here in the convent will always pale when compared to your lives outside these walls.”
Sybella considers Annith for a long moment. “How long have you been here?”
“Since birth. I was brought over mere hours after my birth, by an herb witch.”
My brows shoot up in surprise. I knew she had been here a long time, but since birth? “So you have never known anyplace but the convent?” I ask, trying to hide the envy that comes over me.
“No,” Annith shakes her head.
I do not understand the look of sadness on her face. “But that is a good thing! To never have known hardship or cruelty. To never have been hungry or taunted for what you are.”
She looks up at me then, her eyes filled with some deep pain, so that my mockery of her dies on my lips. “What is it, Annith?” How can she not see this small miracle she’s been given?
She shrugs and fiddles with the small pile of flowers in front of her. For a moment, it looks as if she will share some dire truth, but she shrugs, and whatever it was passes. “I have not lived, not truly.”
I gape at her and wonder if this is some secret of Mortain she is talking about. “What do you mean? You are as alive as we are.”
“She means,” Sybella cuts a sidelong look at Annith, “that our dark, mysterious pasts are more . . . interesting . . . than her bright shiny life.”
“You are mad,” I say, looking at her clear untroubled brow and untouched beauty. “There is no joy in what I’ve been through. Nor Sybella either, I imagine.”
“Of course not,” Annith says, “but even so, you two have worldly skills that will aid you in your service to the saint. Experience I lack.”
“From what I know of gods and saints, the more innocent and virginal the better,” Sybella mutters.
Annith shakes her head firmly. “Not Mortain. All that we suffer in this world, we suffer for Him, so that we may better serve His needs.” It sounds like a lesson the nuns have drilled into her. “Don’t you see? As horrible as it was, it will also help you serve Mortain better. It is a test, one that you have passed. One that proves your worth to Him. Whereas I . . .” her voice drops and she looks down at her hands. “I fear I have not proved my right to serve Him.”
I think about her growing up here, all shiny and pure while other girls come, damaged and broken but more tempered by life. I think about how much it pained me to see Sybella in worse shape than I, and think maybe I understand a tiny piece of what Annith means. “And yet you are here,” I point out. “Surely no one comes to this place except through His will.”
Annith is quiet a long moment. “That is true. But the sisters protect me overmuch. Sometimes I doubt they will ever send me out on a true assignment. And today, I gave them the perfect excuse.”
“Sister Thomine said you’d passed,” I tell her. “After you left.”
Annith brightens. “She did?”
“She did,” Sybella confirms.
Annith looks out at the sea where the moonlight sparkles on the waves. “Still, neither of you have failed at anything.”
Sybella snorts, a surprisingly delicate sound. “Have you seen Ismae at her dancing lessons?”
“Be quiet.” I snatch the jug from her hands and take a deep draught of the wine, my cheeks flaming at the memory of my clumsy abundance of left feet during Sister Beatriz’s dance lessons.
“And I,” Sybella continues. “Have failed at many of the lessons your nuns set before me. Obedience, humility, cooperation.”
Annith waves her hand, dismissing those particular sins. “But those are exciting failures, failures due to an excess of spirit, not lack of courage.”
Fortified by the wine and wanting to make Annith feel better, I confess, “I failed at marriage,” surprising myself as well as the others.
Annith pauses with the jug half way to her mouth. “You were married? See? This is exactly the worldly experience I lack.”
“Not worldly, no,” I say. My memories rush back to those few short hours with Guillo. “Sordid and foul. And humiliating.” I snatch the forgotten jug from Annith’s limp hands and drink deeply.
I brace myself for one of Sybella’s outbursts, instead she tilts her head to the side and studies Annith, an amused look on her face. “And what would you choose to know?”
“The ways of the world,” Annith says. “What goes on between a man and a woman, because I know Sister Beatriz leaves much out of her lessons. What happens when one lies with a man? How to kiss a man? Something. I am fair choking on my own innocence!”
A sly, cunning look appears in Sybella’s eye, the one that always bespeaks trouble. “I can show you how to kiss a man.”
“You can?” Annith looks around the beach, as if she expects a man to appear out of the waves.
“But of course. You don’t need a man to learn that,” she scoffs. “Come here.” She pats the sandy patch next to her. Ever obedient, even in her rebellion, Annith scoots closer, her eyes rapt upon Sybella’s face as if expecting her to perform magic.
Sybella reaches out one slim hand, places it behind Annith’s head, and pulls her face closer. “This then, is how you kiss.” She tips her head slightly and places her lips upon Annith’s. Annith’s eyes widen with shock, as do my own. After a moment, Annith closes her eyes and gets down to the business of learning to kiss. Their lips do not linger long, but it is long enough that I grow somewhat unsettled watching them. I want to look away, but the truth is, I am as hungry for this knowledge as Annith.
At last Sybella pulls away, smoothing Annith’s hair as she does so. “Well and so,” she says. “That is your first lesson.”
Annith’s cheeks flush and she giggles a bit.
“And now you have done something that Ismae has not,” Sybella adds for good measure.
“Truly?” Annith says.
“What?” I scowl at being pulled into the middle of this.
“But I was married!” I protest, damning Sybella’s eyes for always seeing far more than she should.
“Ah, but being married does not mean you kissed.”
And of course, she is right. I never kissed Guillo, nor any of the village boys. I shrug and grab for the wine. She snatches it from my hand and gives it to Annith. “Not until you’ve had your lesson.”
Before I know what she plans, she reaches out and places her hand on my head, bringing my face closer to hers.
“You know you are curious,” she whispers, and then her lips are on mine, cool from the night air, yet warm, too, from the blood singing under her skin. She tastes faintly of wine, and something sharp and spicy, and then she is pulling away and the cold salt air is upon my lips, not the warmth of Sybella’s skin.
She thrusts the wine jug at me. “Now you have earned your drink.”
I take a hefty swallow and wait for the heat in my cheeks to die down.
Much later, soaked in salt air and wine, we creep back to the dormitory and slip into our beds. Annith is asleep within seconds, the wine causing her to snore ever so slightly.
It takes Sybella and I a little longer.