I enjoyed the first two books by Leah Cypess, but felt they didn't reach their full potential. Her latest book, Death Sworn, does reach its full potential and more. Magic, assassins, intrigue, mystery, and backstabbing (literal and figurative) make this an exciting read from start to finish.
When Ileni lost her magic, she lost everything: her place in society, her purpose in life, and the man she had expected to spend her life with. So when the Elders sent her to be magic tutor to a secret sect of assassins, she went willingly, even though the last two tutors had died under mysterious circumstances.
But beneath the assassins’ caves, Ileni will discover a new place and a new purpose… and a new and dangerous love. She will struggle to keep her lost magic a secret while teaching it to her deadly students, and to find out what happened to the two tutors who preceded her. But what she discovers will change not only her future, but the future of her people, the assassins… and possibly the entire world.
The world Cypess has created is shrouded in mystery for the majority of the novel. It is inherently fascinating due to this mystery. There is an evil empire who uses black magic taken from dead and dying victims to thrive. That is what Ileni has spent her whole life believing. In opposition to that are the Renegai, people who broke off from the Empire due to their magic torturing ways and have been building back up their resources and powers for the past four hundred years. In between the two, in a vast network of caves dwell the Assassins, boys of all ages training to be the deadly weapons to bring the Empire down. They all follow the orders of their Master absolutely. Ileni, who is losing her ability to do magic, is sent to instruct those with magical abilities. The entire plot takes place inside these caves. Which should have been dull, and may be for some people, but worked well for me. Like an Agatha Christie novel where all the potential victims are trapped with the killer. Except in this case there are a lot of potential killers and only one targeted victim. I enjoyed the questions Cypess raises as Ileni attempts to carry out her mission, questions of good and evil and what degree people will go to for a cause they believe in. There is also some food for thought here on the power of indoctrination. The Assassins believe fully and wholeheartedly that the Master knows everything and to question him is fundamentally wrong. They are working to bring down the Empire and their lives are to be given in that cause. It is all for the greater good. But most of them have been there since they were young children too young to question what they were being taught. And that the Master has power can not be denied. As I said, the world isn't fully explained and shrouded in a lot of mystery. The entire plot centers around what is going on in the caves so that is the only part of the world, the only view the reader gets. It is, of course, just the first part of the story. One other book will follow. I'm looking forward to see what Cypess does with this world as it expands beyond the confines of the cave.
The plot was just the sort of one I like, where the protagonist doesn't know who to trust and every move is covered in danger. Ileni has to solve a murder and keep herself alive while negotiating the inner politics of the Assassins. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute and was unable to put it down. While I saw one aspect of the reveal coming, there were others I was surprised by. The end moved a little fast and I was a bit disconcerted with the lack of closure. It isn't exactly a cliffhanger, but it is open-ended and one thing Ileni does in the end is going to have some MAJOR consequences and that was sort of glossed over more than I would have liked for the end here.
Ileni is a fantastic heroine. She is smart and actually keeps her wits about her. Even when she is feeling attracted to and falling for her Assassin bodyguard, Sorin, she keeps her head. She has reached a point where she's convinced herself that her life means little to her and is completely focused on her mission. As a result she is snarky, not at all obedient, and a bit reckless. At the same time, she has no desire to die until she has completed what she came to do and she is singleminded about that. There is a lot in her to admire. I like that she is the one with the romantic experience too, while Sorin is the one who is stumbling into his first relationship. That is a refreshing change. Sorin is harder to figure out. He is definitely an Assassin to his very core, which causes me to not be completely on board with his character. I wanted him to question more. I wanted him to let out the rebellious side that is very clearly there. This, however, is exactly how Cypess wanted me to feel I expect because it is how Ileni feels. He is also not entirely trustworthy due to his loyalty to the Master, which adds a fraught aspect to the relationship that develops between him and Ileni. I loved that their relationship started out as merely business and developed slowly. Ilenis is given no choice but to trust him as her protecter and, smart girl that she is, she warded herself against attacks from him first thing. He isn't supposed to be involving himself with her on that level. It's not in his orders. Their relationship is a slow burn one and I enjoyed their interactions. I also liked that most of their romantic interplay was conducted off-page. I was quite satisfied with the way Ileni conducted every part of their relationship, particularly the end. Let's just say, the next book will be quite interesting in more ways than one.
This is my favorite type of fantasy, and the sort of book I would love to see more of. I can not wait to read the sequel, which will hopefully come out sooner rather than later.
I read an e-galley received from the publisher, Greenwillow, via Edelweiss. Death Sworn will be in stores on March 4.