Friday, February 15, 2019

Book Review - Robin LaFevers' Dark Triumph

Dark Triumph by Robin LaFevers
Published by: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children
Publication Date: April 2nd, 2013
Format: Hardcover, 400 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Sybella escaped a horrible life to get to the convent of Saint Mortain. She was damaged and more than a little insane when she arrived, but they, and the new friends she made within the walls of the convent, made her whole again. So what does the Abbess ask of her? To go back to that horrible life because her rank and her position are perfectly placed to aid Anne, the Duchess of Brittany, in her fight against the French to maintain Brittany's independence. Because Sybella has been raised the daughter of d'Albert, Anne's most vicious suitor. A man who has worked his way through six wives and who woos through intimidation, capturing the town of Nantes in an attempt to force Anne's hand. A man so vile that the thought that Death is her father brings Sybella some comfort, because then her father isn't her father, and her brother isn't her brother, and therefore what happened between them isn't nearly as incestuous. The only reason Sybella agreed to this infernal arrangement was because the Abbess promised her that d'Albret would be marked for death. He remains unmarked and Sybella contemplates returning to her true father, but she has survived death so many times she fears she will be rejected once again.

When the convent discovers that the great warrior Beast didn't die in the bloody skirmish outside Nantes, but instead is hidden in the dungeons, Sybella is asked to aid in his release, no matter what danger this might put her in. Things seldom go to plan, and soon Sybella is on the road to Rennes treating Beast's grievous wounds, instead of being back in Nantes carrying out the convent's orders. It wasn't her idea, it was Beast's... and he didn't really give her a choice. The freedom she feels being away from d'Albret and his rotten entourage gives her hope. She can see a future for the first time, and perhaps that future includes the Beast of Waroch. She can travel the countryside with him as he uses his unique talents to call the peasantry to arms and to rise up for the Duchess and the future of Brittany! Only he is unaware of her parentage. He doesn't know that she's a d'Albret. His beloved sister Alyse was one of d'Albret's wives who died at the hands of her husband. Beast forever holds himself responsible for not rescuing his sister, and if he knew not only the truth of who Sybella is, but that it's her fault Alyse died, she could lose Beast forever. The man who she feels able to tell all her secrets to and whom she is falling for. But will her secrets force them apart forever or will they bring them closer together? Only Mortain knows.

From the moment I first finished Grave Mercy I was dying for the next book, which I feel really missed a step by being called Dark Triumph and not Grave Justice, but maybe that's just me. I needed to know what Sybella had been up to. What did the Abbess have Sybella doing? The tantalizing glimpses of her mission throughout Ismae's story in Grave Mercy just made my need to read this second installment all the more dire. Also what about Beast!?! He was LEFT FOR DEAD! In fact, given the wait I had ahead of me I spun possible outcomes, I had a very fixed idea of how the story should play out; we'd begin that first night when Ismae and Sybella were both at the convent and go on from there. Once I got my hands on Dark Triumph I realized that this wasn't at all the story I expected. That first time I read it, I loved it but I wasn't sure I liked it. At the start of Dark Triumph Sybella is such a pessimistic character. She obviously has every right to be, but having grown accustomed to the zealous narration of Ismae, this was a very strong tonal shift. Both women suffered horribly at the hands of men, yet Sybella's outlook is far bleaker. She embraces the vengeance over the mercy of death.

Sybella's past makes this book so dark that what had happened to her overshadowed her evolution the first time I picked the book up. But re-reading, knowing the dark and painful secrets Dark Triumph contained, I was able to see it far more clearly and come to like it, not just love it. There's this nostalgia the book captures where it exudes the vibe of epic fantasy films from the eighties. And no, this isn't just because I've been stuck on a couch for a few weeks with a nasty cold and oddly obsessing about Willow. Films made for kids in the eighties didn't shy away from scaring and scarring their audience. The truth they portrayed made the viewers stronger. The universality of Sybella's struggle, especially since the evolution of the #MeToo movement, hearkens back to these epic stories. A grand journey, an impossible quest, two people who have dark pasts but somehow find each other, all while tackling real world issues within the epic framework made this book mean so much to me. What's also interesting is thinking of parents letting children watch these films and wondering about protection. Who should be the protector in your life when you can't protect yourself? Because Sybella should have been surrounded by people who knew better, and it really takes her relationship with Beast to open her eyes to the fact she has been used by everybody, from her own brother to the Abbess. No one should live in a world where someone takes advantage of your fear and pain.

This pain is what informs Sybella's voice. What Robin has done with Dark Triumph is create not only another compelling narrative in this series, but she has captured Sybella's voice. There is nothing that can be more annoying then having a writer attempt to write a story form multiple points of view and have them fail utterly at it. Instead of having depth and a connection to a handful of characters instead you get a narrative that is flat because there is no distinction, no individuality, you only hear one voice, the authors. In life each person has a distinct voice, I do, you do, Ismae does, Sybella does, and on and on. When I write I fully admit that I can only capture my own voice, which works for what I do. But if Sybella had come out sounding just like Ismae, with her perky attitude and can-do spirit, then not only would this book have failed, but then the uniqueness of Ismae and her distinct voice would be belittled and cheapened. It would no longer have been hers. Instead with Sybella we have a far more educated voice. Less enthusiastic for carrying out Mortain's wishes. More circumspect, questioning, and wary. Which Sybella would have to be growing up in the dark world she inhabits. Being so different this initially led to a disconnect between the second and first book in the series, but I have since come to appreciate this expansion of the world of "His Fair Assassin."

Besides the different voice we also have a very different relationship dynamic between Beast and Sybella. They do not have the zealous righteousness that drives Ismae and Gavriel. They are driven by their dark pasts. They fight for what is right after being stomped down by the oppressive evil in the world, predominately doled out by d'Albrets. Yet neither of them seem to know when to stop pushing so sometimes the other has to be the guide for when enough is enough. This is most obviously shown when Beast occasionally helps Sybella to a state of unconsciousness to get her out of harm's way or when Sybella forces Beast to rest due to his injuries, when the last thing Beast wants is rest. The endearing aspect is that while they both have their secrets, neither one ever questions the loyalties of the other. One jumps, the other jumps. True love comes in many forms and Sybella would have been the first to question finding it in a giant of a man with a squashed face who is terrifying when the blood lust takes him on the battlefield. They compliment each other the way Ismae and Gavriel do. What I really love though is this shows that no matter how different, no matter how damaged you think yourself to be, there is always someone out there for you, they might just be found at the most inopportune of moments in the unlikeliest of places.

Of course the problem with me connecting so strongly to all the characters in the book and shipping them perhaps harder than they ship themselves is that I have a justifiable apprehension for their futures regarding both fictional and historical characters. That is the true magic of this series, that Robin has created a historical fantasy that is so real I worry about what will happen to the characters. Against my better judgment I might have spent a fair amount of time on Wikipedia looking up what really happened during the fight for Brittany to maintain it's independence and how this plays out doesn't necessarily play out how I would wish. I worry about what Ismae and Gavriel will do when the wars are done and the fight is over. How will they handle when Isabeau, Anne's beloved and sickly sister, dies? What will they think of Anne's short life? She is only 26 when she dies. How can the characters I know and love have a happy ending if Anne doesn't have one too? I really should stop obsessing about this and trust in Robin, she is a hopeless romantic and all will work out... right? Because history can be changed and Queen Victoria can end up with Lord M in a perfect world... and while this isn't a perfect world, perhaps it will be able to be perfect enough.


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