When I finished this book less then two weeks ago, I was surprised to find that the sequel had already come out. I loved the first one so I went ahead and ordered it at the library, even with some slight hesitation due to the change in narrator from Ismae to Sybella. Were my fears justified?
Yes and no.
On the one hand, the story is quite more intimate this time around. We do eventually meet up with some of the characters of the first book, but this one is much more focused on her heroine and what she seeks out to do. In some ways, it works. It’s a reminder that in big sweeping conflicts like the one portrayed in the series that there is both the larger political fight and often several smaller personal ones. On the other hand, for much of the book Sybella isn’t as compelling a narrator as Ismae was. In Grave Mercy we are told that Sybella is ‘half-mad’ and while her history (which is slowly doled out) certainly makes it justifiable, in reality she comes off as a mixture of determined, but with this huge cloud of despair mixed with depression hanging over her head. It’s fitting for the character, but makes her narration flat. The book gets more lively as she grows herself, but it just doesn’t grab you the way Ismae’s tale does and so it takes longer to get into it, even though the story picks up quite literally in the middle of the action.
Another thing that I am unsure of is a trope developing that I’m not sure that I’m liking.
Spoilers ahead, skip down if you don’t want to read them.
At the tail end of Grave Mercy, Ismae meets Mortain, the God of Death, on the battle field. In that instant she learns that there are multiple ways to serve her god and decides that she will become a kind of angel of mercy. The meeting gives her renewed faith and strength and she uses it to wrap up her story.
At the tail of Dark Triumph, Sybella meets Mortain. She finally gets the proof she needs to know she really is his daughter and realizes that she is meant to be his hand of justice. The meeting gives her renewed faith and strength and she uses it to wrap up her story.
The parallelism is nice, but I don’t know that it works. It makes sense when Ismae meets him: throughout her story she is portrayed as extremely devout. She questions the motivations of the monastery that she serves and its head abbess, but almost never her god. Sybella, however, can best be described as agnostic. She accepts the notion of Mortain as her father only because the alternative is quite literally too horrible to accept. She is constantly questioning his existence, his motivations and so on. Given that the first book indicates that Mortain does not reveal himself to all of his children (the Abbess has never seen him) would such a god really reveal himself to one whose faith was so slippery and reluctant as in the case of Sybella? I’m not so sure and so ultimately this comes off as a bit gimmicky.
There is a third book due out next year with a third narrator and I’m willing to bet money it will end the same way. I don’t think this is something that will ruin the series or anything, but I think I may have been happier without it.
At the end of the day, the book was still good, but not as good. There was little in the way of political intrigue here and Sybella as protagonist wasn’t quite up to the level that Ismae was. I am looking a bit more forward to the final book as it seems like we’ll also be getting a fresh story. Ultimately, these books are strong enough that I do want to see how the series wraps up, but I’m just not as wowed by it as I was the other title. This is one of those ‘your mileage may vary’ deals: I loved the first in part because of the political intrigue and because we saw life in the convent, both things missing here. Consider what you enjoyed about the first book to make your choice in how to proceed.
Verdict: Borrow it if you liked the elements that I liked, buy it if you don’t mind the shift in focus.