Dark Triumph. His Fair Assassin Book 2. by Robin LaFevers.
In the first book of this series, we met Ismae, a novice at the convent of St. Mortain, the patron saint of death, whose nuns are naturally assassins. In that book, Ismae found love while thwarting (at least temporarily) devious plots against the ruling Duchess, Anne of Brittany. In this book, we learn the story of Ismae’s friend and fellow novice Sybella, who seemed slightly insane in the first book and who was sent out on a mission even before Ismae. Sybella may know she’s on a mission, but since the mission involves returning to her abusive legal father, the powerful d’Albert, her cover is good even if her actions are still closely watched. D’Albert has buried six wives and is now one of the many men betrothed to the Duchess and determined to follow through. Sybella witnesses the mighty Beast of Waroch being struck down as the Duchess’s forces attack d’Albert’s stronghold directly. Soon she discovers that he has survived and is being held prisoner. Her struggle to rescue him and take him back to the Duchess turns out to be redemptive for both of them.
The first book in this series had a lot more politics; Sybella and the Beast are much less involved with the whole web and more focused on one mission at a time. There is more of a look at the various roles society puts people into, as a significant amount of time is spent with the pair recruiting the assistance of the despised charcoal-burners or charbonnerie for the Duchess. But while Ismae had a hard enough backstory, Sybella’s is downright nightmarish. Not only did she watch her father kill multiple wives, but she has abusive older brothers, and beloved younger sisters who can be used as hostages. The Beast seems to have survived a life not much better with somewhat less mental scarring, but he is dedicated to St. Camulos, as are all children born of battle-fueled rape. Their journey to overcome their pasts to find a place of trust is just beautiful. In the first book, I was bothered by the focus on romance in a story about nuns, but this time I was expecting it. It’s explicit that chastity is not among the vows of St. Mortain’s nuns, but Sybella and Ismae both have growing doubts about how the convent is run and the role of the Abbess in particular. This plot line looks like it will come even more to the fore in the last book in the trilogy. The Beast seems to hold some ideas that were potentially anachronistic, which I was perfectly willing to accept in the name of a more balanced relationship for modern teens to read about. (I’d say it’s best for high school and up, due to the dark subject matter.) Otherwise, this is a book that pays beautifully close attention to historical accuracy. That, combined with strong characters and the exciting, multi-stranded plot, made for a story I got sucked right into. And yes, I’ll definitely be looking for the sequel.