Monday, March 3, 2014

Review: Death Sworn by Leah Cypess

Release date: March 4, 2014
Author info: Website | Twitter
Publisher: Greenwillow
Pages: 352
Format: ARC
Source: Publisher provided for review
Buy the book: Barnes & Noble | Amazon | The Book Depository
When Ileni lost her magic, she lost everything: her place in society, her purpose in life, and the man she had expected to spend her life with. So when the Elders sent her to be magic tutor to a secret sect of assassins, she went willingly, even though the last two tutors had died under mysterious circumstances.

But beneath the assassins’ caves, Ileni will discover a new place and a new purpose… and a new and dangerous love. She will struggle to keep her lost magic a secret while teaching it to her deadly students, and to find out what happened to the two tutors who preceded her. But what she discovers will change not only her future, but the future of her people, the assassins… and possibly the entire world.
Death Sworn is the kind of book that I just know I will love. It's hard not to be enchanted by a synopsis that promises magic, assassins, a mystery, and romance--and it was just as difficult not to be enchanted by the book itself. An action-packed story that focuses on trust, power, and the value of a life, Death Sworn is at once entertaining and constantly questioning of where it stands morally.

Ileni was once told she was destined to be the most powerful sorceress born in hundreds of years. And maybe that was true, but with time, Ileni's powers are fading, as they do for some magic-wielders. In a last effort to feel useful, Ileni takes the post of teacher to a hidden group of assassins who have worked for generations to take down the Empire. Soon, Ileni is not only finding a new reason to fight for her power and the life she knew, but she's determined to find out who is killing her people, including the last two teachers of magic in the assassin's caves.

Ileni is such an interesting character to follow. When we meet her, her once abundant powers are waning--to the point where the simplest magic exhausts her. She's bitter and angry, both at the system that let her learn magic and believe in a future only to take it away, and at herself for failing to be the person she dreamt of being. Already physically powerless against those who are vastly stronger than her, Ileni is also magically powerless, deeply fearful of the day the assassins learn that her magic is soon to be gone. She is determined to be correct in her belief that the assassins are cold-hearted, unfeeling, and immoral, without the personality and opinions of their own to shape their worldview, instead mindlessly listening to their master.

And in some ways she is right, but it's her relationship with Sorin that begins to unravel her pre-conceived notions. Sorin, at first, seems to be the unfeeling assassin who strictly follows orders. But with time, Ileni sees his desire to break free of the confines of the caves and his need to defy, even in the smallest ways. It's through Ileni and Sorin's differing beliefs that Death Sworn's biggest moral questions are disputed. Ileni was taught that all killing is evil, no question. But Sorin, as an assassin, has been taught that a single death to prevent death and suffering of many is justified, right even. And what's interesting is that the novel doesn't seem to have a firm stance on this. It is proven multiple times that the assassin's view is valid, but Ileni's is morally correct.

The only facet that could be called lacking is the world-building. While minimal world-building is expected of a story that takes place solely in caves, the reader is left with a very vague idea of the Empire, this vast, seemingly-evil establishment that everyone is trying to take down. We don't know the size of the Empire or the power structure. We don't know where the assassins' caves are or where the sorcerers' villages are. This is a problem that will undoubtedly be remedied in the next book, but it makes it feel like a less than fully-realized world for this one.

With an engaging plot, a romance that only made me want more, and a heroine I rooted for from the beginning, Death Sworn is a strong beginning to a new YA fantasy that has the potential to become one of my favorites.

About the author:

I wrote my first story in first grade. The narrator was an ice-cream cone in the process of being eaten. In fourth grade, I wrote my first book, about a girl who gets shipwrecked on a desert island with her faithful and heroic dog (a rip-off of both The Black Stallion and all the Lassie movies, very impressive).

After selling my first story (Temple of Stone) while in high school, I gave in to my mother’s importuning to be practical and majored in biology at  Brooklyn College. I then went to Columbia Law School and practiced law for almost two years at Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, a large law firm in New York City. I kept writing and submitting in my spare time, and finally, a mere 15 years after my first short story acceptance, I sold my first novel to Greenwillow Books (HarperCollins).

I live in Brookline, Massachusetts (right outside of Boston) with my husband Aaron, a researcher and doctor at the Joslin Diabetes Center, and our three children.

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