I have made no secret of my immense love of Grave Mercy, and have been recommending it to everyone I know who enjoys historical fiction, fantasy, and powerful heroines. As with every sequel to a book I loved, trepidation filled me as I approached Dark Triumph. There's always that chance that the sequel will not live up to its predecessor and will color your enjoyment even of that first book. Robin LaFevers, though, hits her sequel out of the park. Dark Triumph does not fall victim to middle book syndrome and even surpasses Grave Mercy.
Grave Mercy was fairly dark, but still a nice read-a-like for Maria V. Snyder or Kristin Cashore. Dark Triumph is even darker, not a novel I would recommend to those who do not like unhappy tales. Sybella's dark past makes what Ismae went through look like a healthy childhood, and, those who read Grave Mercy know that Ismae's youth was no picnic. Ismae and Duval do make a couple of appearances in Dark Triumph, and it's startling how much more optimistic and friendly Ismae is in comparison to Sybella.
My attachment to Ismae formed immediately in Grave Mercy, but Sybella took me some time to adjust to. She's darker, moodier, more pained, and sometimes verges on crazy, though one can't blame her. However, as I got used to her and came to know more about why she is the way she is, I became even more bonded to Sybella, and even more desirous for her to overcome the horrors of her life.
Sybella's childhood, I will reiterate yet again, was...there aren't really words for it. Her father, d'Albret, used her as a pawn, and she had to watch him kill off wife after wife. Two of her brothers sexually harassed her, one for the fun of it and one from a misguided sense of love. Her past is without brightness, and I'm warning you now of triggers for rape and incest. On top of that, there is a whole lot of violence.
One of the main criticisms I've seen of Grave Mercy, even from those that liked it, had to do with the circumstances of the consummation of Ismae's romance. It was seen as a bit of a cop-out, as though Ismae needed an excuse to have sex. In Dark Triumph, the same could not be said. Sybella has had more than one sexual partner, some willed and some not, and does not have any hesitancy about having sex when she desires it. Sybella seems a bit more empowered than Ismae, and will likely be a big hit with those disappointed by that part of Grave Mercy.
The romance in Dark Triumph makes me even happier than that in Grave Mercy. Though I do think this series could just as easily have been marketed to an adult audience, I love that this book will be going to a young adult audience. LaFevers tosses aside convention and delivers a hero utterly unlike those to be found in the bulk of YA romances. He is not handsome; in fact, he is described as ugly more than once. That does not make him unlovable to Sybella or to me. This message is so important for teens, the importance of personality and common interests over physical appearance.
The Final Verdict:
If you loved Grave Mercy, get excited, because you will surely love Dark Triumph too. If you were in the camp of readers who thought LaFevers pulled some punches in the first book, then I urge you to give this installment a try, because it is much darker and more unique. My love for Robin LaFevers' writing has been firmly cemented, and I shall proceed to wait impatiently for the third His Fair Assassin novel.