Jul 2, 2015

The Death Sworn Duology by Leah Cypess

The first word that came to mind after reading Death Sworn was:


The heroine, Ileni, is a sorceress who was sent willingly to tutor assassins in the art of magic. When her powers faded away, the Elders gave her an impossible mission: find out why the previous tutors they have sent died. Now teaching in the Assassins' Caves, Ileni develops a new love, meets Sorin (the star assassin), and discovers a plan that involves her changing the future of the world they all live in.

The premise promises everything I love in a story: dynamic relationships, mystery, some romance, intrigue, risks, and most importantly, character development. And looking back, I feel kind of stupid for putting it off so long in fear of it ... well ... sucking.

Because it didn't.

I'll admit, the first few paragraphs were a bit too heavy for me to get into, and it took me a while to get used to the style. But once I did, everything just worked out smoothly. The dialogue, the description, the world building... it all just clicked together perfectly. And more than anything else, I felt like I was there, hiding in the dark caverns watching an unlikely romance unfold among characters who are--thankfully--too smart to be ruled solely by their feelings.

The story was light on romance despite the main character being the only female in the Assassins' Caves, and had the perfect amount of it (even in the sequel) without being overwhelming or off-putting. Characters truly acted like they were supposed to, making them rational and realistic. They were well-developed and unique--each character had a different personality that made it clear they weren't copy-paste clones of one another with different names. This made the dialogue flow really well. I even caught myself chuckling at some jabs and leaning into the pages, anticipating the characters' reactions. The writing was that good. It kept me entertained, and above all, it was witty without trying too hard to be.


  • A Strong Heroine: Ileni is someone who had so much power and promise as a child, but grew up only to become a disappointment to her people. She grew up believing she was special, but she isn't anymore. And when the story starts, she had already given up. She is bitter. And she is realistic. She does something with herself. Ileni survives among assassins despite the odds. She tries to find the answers to the mystery she was sent to solve despite her hopelessness. She does things that go against her feelings, even putting it plainly by saying, she isn't "stupid." And she really isn't. She makes mistakes, but she accomplishes her tasks despite her lack of power. If only there were more YA heroines like her.
"The cacophony of clinks and thuds and grunts from the main training area had gone silent. A cluster of assassins stood in the arched cavern entrance, staring, the pretense of disinterest wiped off their faces. Her role as their tutor, apparently, was off to a great start."  
    • Natural Repartee & Relationships: No Insta-Love! No out-of-the-blue feelings! No one is "too-stupid-to-live" in the story! Everything happens slowly but surely--it's refreshing. I especially enjoyed watching the atmosphere change between Ileni and Sorin. It's like there's always a challenge between the two. 
    "How to throw assassins off balance: cry in front of them. She would have to find a way to pass that along to the next tutor."   
    • Magic and Death: This goes without saying, but I was satisfied with how well the two elements worked together. Ileni is a sorceress. Sorin is an assassin. Each come from very different backgrounds, each have learned very different skills, but both aim to accomplish a mutual goal. Despite having that in common, there are many things that get in the way. Like killing. Like power. And these themes are incorporated into the story in ways that provoke contemplation. Just as they should. 
    • A Put-Together Plot: The plot was simple and cohesive. Everything fit together and nothing really jumped out as being sorely incongruous. I never got frustrated by the pace or by the characters' stupidity ... I loved going through the action with them. And I did not anticipate that ending until it was already happening.
    Now I liked the book, but there were still parts I believe could be improved. I wanted to know more about the characters' backgrounds. I appreciated how we got a small window into their past, but I felt like the world they lived in before wasn't as expanded as it should've been. That's partly something I hoped would be shown in the sequel. I wanted to see more of the world outside of the dark gloomy caves. I knew a big world was out there, but I only saw a small part of it. I can't help but feel like it's a missing piece of the world-building puzzle.

    The first book is wholly focused on the assassins' side as the story's set in their Caves. The second deals more with magic since it takes place in the Empire. Because of that, the two sides are evenly represented, making the duology a good choice. BUT:

    It's not enough.

    I quite liked the first book, and had high expectations for the second. I couldn't wait to see how the events would unfold ... but it feels like I still didn't get to find out. The book read more like a continuation to me than a conclusion. I felt like it was a tease, like the plot couldn't possibly end there.

    Then I remembered that Ileni is the main character. That the story is Ileni's story ... and it kind of made sense why it ended where it did. The whole point was to watch her develop as a character--and in this sequel, she does. She tackles some pretty hefty moral dilemmas and uncovers a lot of corruption. She finally picks a side. She finally makes a choice... I just feel bad we don't get to witness the aftereffects.

    Although there's all of that to consider, you still get a whole new cast of characters that are just as unique and entertaining as the first. You get more plot developments, more conflict, and more travelling around. It makes up for what I didn't get in the first book. I can see why the sequel upsets everyone. But at the same time, I find it a suitable ending. Not a perfect one, but good enough that I feel no need to kick up a fuss. Besides, we get to read some scenes from Sorin's point of view. Who could possibly complain about that?

    OVERALL: 4/5

    Read it. And if you like the first book, give the second a chance. They're both good for different reasons, and it's worthwhile meeting new characters and uncovering the world building. I was immediately hooked reading it (as you can tell), and I truly believe it's an underrated YA story.