First, I should note that I have not read Grace Mercy. Neither the premise nor the prospect of spending a book in Ismae's head sounded appealing. I am happy to say that was not the case here.Characters:
Sybella is an emotionally scarred young woman, the product of a depraved family, and a daughter of St. Mortain, the god of death. Her father, Count d'Albret, plans to take all Brittany for his own, rules by fear, and matches the Queen of Hearts in arbitrary slaughter. As an assassin, Sybella is a ruthless and efficient tool. As a human being, she's insecure and confused. Her belief in St. Mortain, his devine plans, and her heritage suffers from constant doubt; but she clings to it for the purpose it gives her life as well as the absolution it offers from her otherwise incestuous relationship with her brother, Julian. In some ways, these two, Sybella and Julian, were the most complex and, thereby, most interesting characters for me. Both are struggling to survive in d'Albret's court, keeping secrets and loyalties that could get them killed while attempting to limit their exposure to and participation in d'Albret's evil. Being inside Sybella's head, seeing the many masks she wears to stay alive, and wondering where she might be had she not spent that time at the convent ... it actually made me more sympathetic to Julian, made me wonder whether I should call him sick and perverted or just confused considering his upbringing and environment, especially in light of the risks he takes protecting Sybella.
D'Albret was a decent villain, but I found the Abbess of St. Mortain's convent falling into the same category. They both had absolute belief that their actions were right and that any action taken in the pursuit of their goals was justifiable, no matter the consequences. No manipulation, murder or lie was beneath them. It didn't matter that their goals were opposite.
Beast was okay. He knew who he was, what he did and had absolute confidence in himself. Honestly, if he hadn't been dying, he would have been a little too perfect. As it was, he still felt a tad two-dimensional for as much screen time as he had, almost as though he were more a foil for Sybella's character development than a fully developed character.
Despite hearing she made for a less than ideal protagonist in Grace Mercy, Ismae made a good true friend for Sybella and was a decent secondary character overall. Duval, the duchess, and the rest of their court ... I didn't see them for long enough to make a determination.Romance:
I didn't hate Sybella and Beast but, mostly because Beast wasn't as well rounded as I hoped, I didn't love the romance aspect either and was glad it didn't feature too strongly. More than anything, the portrayals of familial, romantic, and platonic love felt like good conversation starters for in depth discussions on the nature of love - what qualifies as "true love," whether the protagonist might be deceiving herself or grasping for familiar/unconditional affection versus being in love. As an aside, I wasn't fond of the portrayal of sex with someone special as a bucket list item.Plot:
After training at the convent of St. Mortain as an assassin, Sybella is back in her (evil) father's house, spying and hoping for a sign from the gods that she can kill him. Time passes and her sign fails to appear. New orders to save a dying prisoner necessitate immediate action; but, when her plans hit a hitch, her dreams of killing daddy must move to the back burner as she carts a sick soldier cross-country, avoiding capture along the way. Sybella is always acting or reacting, so her character growth pushes the plot and the pace never suffers. Again, I couldn't help but think of a book group because the story poses so many interesting questions regarding nature v. nurture, the morality of killing, etc.Writing:
First person narrative and in present tense. Two of my least favorite writing styles, but they worked. (I'm a little shocked to have found two first person, present tense books/series I've liked in this past year.) I think the greatest help to this was that the author never allows Sybella to stop and dwell on anything in her head for too long. We know her thoughts, but they never stretch on or inhibit the plot. We keep moving forward.
On the other hand, while the pace was good, the lack of mind time resulted in a lack of explanations, especially in terms of backstory. I wasn't sure if I was supposed to know more of this from the previous book or if it was supposed to be mysterious/vague, but it prevented me from feeling strongly for or sympathizing with the protagonist in the beginning.Conclusion:
Some will die, some will live, some will find they've love to give. (rhyme moment) The "love conquers all" ending was a little meh, a little too neat and uncomplicated after all the ambiguity and confusion preceding. Also, again, book group moment: I was intrigued by a line wherein Sybella claims to have regained her "faith." Her thoughts/experience on this would make interesting discussion for faith, the definition(s) and practice(s) of. In this portion of the ending, she seemed to have regained her belief and a sense of hope or trust--but after the need for faith (i.e., sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see)was, in effect, negated. The use of redemption at the end was a nice touch, but also a little too neat.Final Verdict:
Despite not reading the first book, in general, I enjoyed this one. It had really interesting thoughts/ideas and, for me, worked fine as a standalone. I may take a look at the final book in this trilogy, but I'm a little afraid it will be a typical Superman adjusting to Earth plot. We shall see.