Even Stevens’s #CBR5 review #26: Dark Triumph by Robin LaFevers

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Finished my half cannonball just under the wire! I really liked this book and was glad I could close out the year on a high note.

Dark Triumph is the second book in the His Fair Assassin series by LaFevers.  The second volume switches points of view – whereas the first book, Grave Mercy, focused on Ismae and gave us brief glimpses of Sybella, this time we learn Sybella’s story, and all the secrets in her past and her present. Dark Triumph picks up immediately following the events at the end of Grave Mercy, and Sybella is struggling to find a way to cope with her current assignment at the cruel Count D’Albret’s castle, when she is ordered to carry out another: smuggle out the most closely guarded prisoner at the castle and return him to the queen’s company.

On the whole, I really liked this book. There are some pros and cons here: I think LaFevers is a great storyteller and I like her voice, character styling, and the flow of the stories. I also think she side-stepped a big obstacle in writing trilogies, which is that most of the time, the second book feels like filler. This most definitely does not feel that way and the story is fast paced and gripping. However, I think (at least judging from Goodreads ratings) that I am in the minority of people who enjoyed the first installment more. Ismae, Duval, and Anne really grew on me and I wanted to keep up with their characters much more. Sybella turned out to be a pretty great protagonist but sometimes I felt that parts of her personality and her story were more the result of engineering and trying to fit her into the plot, rather than vice versa.

Both volumes are set in the late 1400s and many of the people in the books existed and many of the events happened. I love historical fiction the more I read it and both of these books have been a pretty fascinating look at some long past history (even if some of it is embellished).

I really enjoy LaFevers’s writing and I will definitely be checking out the final part of the trilogy when it comes out next year (which will feature the third girl of their group, Annith). This is a quick but engrossing read and I was entertained to the very last page.

Even Stevens’s #CBR5 review #10: Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

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Ismae has always been an outcast in her village, and particularly reviled and abused by her own father. The reason for this is the scar she bears across her back – the result of a failed abortion attempt – that everyone sees as the mark of the devil. Ismae is sold to an ogre of a man to become his wife, but is saved and whisked away to a convent. This is no traditional convent however, this convent worships the patron saint of death, Saint Mortain, and Ismae is told that she was sired by none other than Death himself.  Ismae is then trained as an assassin: she learns to fight, to defend herself, to mix deadly potions, and basically to kick ass in all areas. When a possible threat to the queen’s life arises (Queen Anne of Brittany – this is where the historical fiction comes in), Ismae is tasked with travelling to the capital with the queen’s half brother, Gavriel Duval. They are to work together to thwart the traitor to the queen, against both of their wishes. What comes after is a mix of action, drama, espionage, and some romance.

This book was a hell of a lot of fun. I had actually forgotten the premise when I got around to reading it, the title had just stuck in my head from so many recommendations, so it was a treat to go in blind and get caught up in Ismae’s world of intrigue.  The plot summary on many sites makes it sound like an entire book about assassin nuns –which are involved – but it’s really more about Ismae growing up and finding her place in the world she knows. And it doesn’t hurt that she does a lot of ass kicking along the way. There are quite a few players in this book, and some not very subtle chess references, but it all makes a very intriguing story. I knew fairly early on who the traitor was, but thankfully this story stands on its own and is more than just a whodunit (or who-gonna-do-it, I suppose).

The one complaint I have is that I wish we had gotten to see Ismae’s years of training at the convent. It literally goes from her accepting a place at the convent to three years later when she is a fully trained assassin. There are more books planned in the series, so I assume the author held off that part of the story to be told in a later installment, but it really did take away some value from the story. We are told she is best friends with Sybella and Annika (I’m about 99% sure this isn’t the correct name of the character but it’s been awhile since I read it and the internet is shockingly unhelpful in this matter) but we don’t get to see that, and I think that is a truly missed opportunity in her book.

This book ran a lot more along the historical fiction line than I was expecting, but it was well paced and developed and though it is technically YA, it reads much more like an adult novel. This has a sort of Graceling feel to it, though I can’t pinpoint why. Either way, that one complaint aside, this was an excellent book and I definitely recommend it.

Alexis’s #CBR5 Review #3, Grave Mercy, Robin LaFevers

gravemercyGrave Mercy is a book about a convent of trained assassins. That’s not a typo – this is a book about killer nuns.

Ismae is a 17 year old beet farmer whose father is only slightly less horrendous than the brute he marries her to. Luckily after being locked in a root cellar she is rescued by a priest who spirits her away to the convent of St. Mortain, patron saint of death.

So by page 5 Ismae is now being tutored as an assassin nun. Which seems like a pretty juvenile concept unless you’re knee-deep into winter in Vermont and desperately want any sort of escapist adventure that will help you forget for 5 seconds just how cold and grey that it’s been FOREVER. Now….where was I?

So Ismae is a killer nun. We don’t hear much about her training but are told that she is highly competent and her specialty is poison. Don’t forget this fact – it’ll come into play later.

In no time Ismae is sent to court of the Duchess of Brittany to find an evil French mole. She is posing as the paramour of the brilliant and passionate Gavriel Duval and quickly becomes attracted to his dark intensity. But what is he is the mole? Then she receives orders from the convent that she is to kill Gavriel! Oh no, now somebody has POISONED Gavriel but who? And how can she, a master of poison, ever hope to counter the effects of this horrible deed? SPOILER ALERT: She kisses the poison out of him. It’s like he had a bad case of morning breath and she had a fresh piece of gum in her mouth and they just made out until the effects of his terrible halitosis was neutralized by her Juicy Fruit. [FACEPALM]

Look Ms. LaFevers,

Killer nuns is a cool idea. This is only the first of many killer nun books you will write (aside: book #2 is scheduled for release in April). If you want to throw in a bit of romance, go for it. It worked like gangbusters for Ms. Meyers so why shouldn’t it work for you too? But let me whip out my intro to writing text book and share a few points that may be helpful in developing your writing career:

  • If you’re going to put the quote, “Why be the sheep when you can be the wolf?” with a picture of a girl with a crossbow on the cover and repeatedly TELL us what a skillful assassin she is, then you also need to actually include some assassinations in your story. Or to be brief – your killer nuns would be much more interesting if they actually KILLED PEOPLE.
  • Like you, I also have a hard time writing dialogue and try to cover for my lack of skill with far too much exposition. However unlike you I am not a published author. Also a single spoken sentence is not dialogue. Dialogue involves 2+ people talking about things meaningful things (not the weather or how one has slept).
  • If you want to have your killer nuns falling in love that’s great. I love a bit of romance. Romance is developed through dialogue (see point above) and the two characters overcoming some obstacle to being together. Ismae and Gavriel spent little time together, when they did they barely spoke, and the only barrier to them hooking up was actually spending enough time in the same room to get it on.
  • Go to the library and pick any writing book. Invariably this book will contain a chapter titled something like, “Show don’t tell.” I know – this is hard to do. But you can’t keep telling us about how everybody is feeling about everything that is happening. Which brings me to…
  • Things need to happen. 100+ pages of quiet dinners, games of chess, and changing clothes does not a great assassin nun book make. Which brings me to…
  • If you’re writing assassin nun books then make the focus about nuns who are assassinating people. You tried to get too much into court intrigue which was both dull and irrelevant. Philippa Gregory can write fantastic court intrigue, but probably couldn’t write a nun assassin book to save her life. We each have our own gifts. (Aside: Philippa Gregory could probably write an AMAZING nun assassin book.)
  • Your assassin nuns have mystical powers. They didn’t really need them (the story would work – or not as the case may be – without those mystical powers). But if you’re going to give them mystical powers then make those mystical powers a) interesting and b) germane to the story. For example Harry Potter is a magician and his ability to do magic is absolutely crucial to the whole series. See how cool it can be?

Killer nuns. Seemed like a fun idea, but it wasn’t. Don’t be fooled by the high rankings on Amazon, Goodreads, etc. Trust me on this one.