Book Review: Death Sworn, by Leah Cypess (Advanced Reader Copy)

SERIES: Death Sworn, #1
SHELVES: Young adult, fantasy (high fantasy, magic, sorcerers), romance, assassins
MORE INFO: Goodreads
DATE READ: 02 January 2014
RATING: ★★★★
SUMMARY: 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.

REVIEW: Okay, disclaimer: anything with assassins gets my attention. (And usually my praise as well.) It’s probably because of my dumb childhood dream to become an assassin. So when I saw that Leah Cypess was going to publish a book about a sorceress tutoring an entire society of assassins (!!), I had to read it. (I’ve never read Leah Cypess before, I’m so sorry, but I have heard a lot of good things about her.)

But aside from that minor (major) weakness that is going to make this review less than impartial, I really enjoyed the book. Our main character and narrator, Ileni, is really interesting and quite likable. I loved how we learn about her past and the sorcerer society she leaves behind, the Renegai, without it being too revelation-y. For example, we only learn about the political premise of the story when Ileni is thinking about her past and is especially frustrated about certain events. Two centuries before the beginning of the book, the Rathian Empire conquered the region, and while most sorcerers swore their allegiance to the Empire, Ileni’s society fled to the mountains to preserve their ways and build their strength, waiting for the time to strike and take their land back.

The back story is presented very realistically without Ileni explaining what would be normal to her in her mind. I always have an issue with narrators explain everyday parts of their lifestyles in first-person or third-person limited point-of-view, so I like how information is revealed almost casually. (She’s even casual about how she knows that she’s going to die in the caves like her predecessors. That’s kind of depressing, but moving on.)

The premise is fascinating. In Ileni’s world, everyone has the potential to practice magic, though that potential varies in each person. Furthermore, one’s magical ability relies on two qualities: strength and skill. Ileni is the most skilled sorceress in centuries, and she was also told that she was the strongest. (Here’s where it gets a little complicated.) However, it turns out that when she was tested as a child, the Elders learned that she was only a child prodigy and that her strength would wane and eventually disappear. It is the impending loss of her powers that sends Ileni to the assassins to begin with.

This ends up being an important part of the plot that is revealed to the reader (and to Ileni) near the end of the book. There are these objects called “lodestones” that store the magic of sorcerers when they die. This is considered a type of dark magic, which is only practiced by the imperial sorcerers. However, lodestones can only be used by those who do not have magic. So the Elders planned to train Ileni to become the most skilled sorceress there ever was and when her strength disappeared, she would be able to use the power of the lodestones to destroy the Empire and help the Renegai return home.

Which, awesome, right? It’s a really interesting take on the tried-and-true concept of magic.

And then there are the assassins. (Swoon. I’m so sorry.) The other main character (and Ileni’s eventual love interest) is Sorin. He is one of the best at the Assassin’s Caves. (They’re both the best at what they do, which is a little boring but it works so well.) The master also assigns him to protect Ileni while she is teaching the assassins. And when he finds out what Ileni’s main purpose is at the caves—to find out what happened to the two tutors who died before her—he volunteers to help her. (Not originally because he’s a nice person but because he wants to find the traitor who killed the tutors without permission. Weird assassin logic.)

Sorin starts off as the stoic assassin who spends time with Ileni because it’s his job. But their relationship grows quite nicely. He tries to teach her how to fight, and when they learn that she has an aptitude for knives, they focus on that which means TOUCHY FEELY TRAINING TIME.

Other assassins include imperial asshole Irun (whom I really loved because antagonists, bye) and Bazel, who is often referred to as “the least” but is still pretty deadly. (Note: even the worst assassin is still deadly. Years of training to kill will do that, I guess.) And the master.

And whoa, the master. He is basically this all-knowing figure who has everything planned out and everyone under his thumb. There’s one part when he calls in an assassin pupil named Jastim and tells him to jump out of a window. And the kid does. The assassins—both the pupils and the other teachers—trust him so implicitly that they never question anything he says or does. Talk about control. (Because it’s definitely not charisma.)

I also really liked how the plot progressed. Just when I think I’m on top of it and know what was coming next, Cypess slams me with some new information that makes me doubt what I thought I knew. But in the best way. This book kept me on my toes, and it was a pleasant surprise.

I’m so glad this is a series because there was a pretty big cliffhanger at the end. I’m excited to know what happens next, even though I’ll be waiting a long time. Sigh.

I would definitely recommend this to people first venturing in the young adult fantasy genre. It mixes up the usual fantasy tropes with new concepts and great character development. Also assassins.

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