Title: Death Sworn (Death Sworn, #1)
Author: Leah Cypess
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Release Date: March 4th, 2014
While a countless number of hidden gems flit under my radar on a weekly basis, I make it a point to hunt out every fantasy novel I can get my hands on. I thrive within the fantasy genre. I’ve grown up breathing the air of thousands of different worlds and I don’t intend to stop – not just yet. Mistwood, Cypess’s debut novel, similarly did not fail to come under my radar when it was first released; an ambitious piece, for a debut, and not without its flaws, but also shining in its merits. While I haven’t picked up a Cypess novel since, I couldn’t resist the allure of Death Sworn, the combination of its cover and synopsis proving to be my undoing. For better or for worse, however, Cypess has improved as an author – but only a little.
Ileni’s world is one held in a precarious balance: assassins, magicians, and politics. As a child, Ileni held a great reservoir of magical energy and as she grew up and trained under the tutelage of the Elders, she became a sorceress; one of the best. But now, Ileni’s magic is failing. The Elders failed to predict this when they initiated her into the world of magic and now, with Ileni’s powers fading, she is of no use to anyone. Except, that is, to be sent to the assassin caves. Both the assassins and the sorcerers have shared a history of bad blood. In a weak attempt to bring peace among their people, the sorcerers send one of their own to live and tutor the assassins in basic forms of magic. In return, their lives are spared. Ileni is the third magician – the first sorceress – to be send to the cave in a matter of months. As her last two predecessors died, the Elders have now volunteered her as their tutor of choice for the simple reason that Ileni’s task is a suicide mission and with her powers fading into nonexistence, she is dispensable. But Ileni, despite having lost her home, her reputation, her magical abilities, and her family has not lost her courage. Against all odds, she resolves to survive the task she has been forth and, what’s more, solve the mystery of the murders occurring in the caves.
Death Sworn carries an interesting premises. After all, what’s not to love about a group of assassins hiding out in caves, slowly sneaking into a city to take down a political regime they despise, all with the help of rebel magicians? One of the best elements to this tale is the fact that Cypess’s assassins are deadly. Each and every one of them is willing to risk their life for the future of the Empire and, moreover, willing to kill without question as well. Although these assassins are mere boys, they have been trained to become cold and unfeeling beings, brutal in their ways. Or, at any rate, this is how Ileni sees them. When Ileni first enters the caves she is a cynical character, already embittered from her own experiences with her people and now entering into a domain with preconceived notions about these “stone-cold” killers. As Ileni learns to live among these assassins, her opinion of them changes, lending itself perfectly to a steady, and sure, growth arc.
From the first page itself, Ileni is a quiet, but fierce heroine. With her powers gradually waning, she is stuck in a cave of assassins virtually powerless. Yet, she never lets these obstacles hold her back. Surrounded by enemies, Ileni is reluctant to become close to anyone, let alone show much emotion. Sorin, who Ileni slowly comes to form a close friendship with, is also loathe to wear his heart on his sleeve. As an assassin, he seems rather cold and calculating at first but as the novel progresses, Ileni witnesses that Sorin – and all the assassins for that matter – have manages to retain their own personalities, doubts, fears, and inner bitterness despite the fact that their profession calls for a complete lack of feeling. Sorin and Ileni’s romance, too, is impeccably timed, starting out as a very firm friendship before progressing any further. Even when it does go forward, though, it is constantly pushed aside in favor of the plot in question. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed this slow-burn sizzle, merely because it allowed us, the reader, to see the true personas behind the blank facades these characters have learned to wear so well.
Ironically, these very same personalities prove to be a bit of a downfall throughout the novel too. At times, they could almost be a little too apathetic. While I grew to love the individual Ileni becomes by the end of the book, I lacked a strong connection with her character during the duration of the story. Moreover, Ileni and Sorin are written into the molds of Teacher and Assassin who are intended to “hate” one another, but these shapes they wore detracted, again, from my emotional connection with the story. An issue of even more concern, however, is the lack of sufficient world-building. First off, Death Sworn is set entirely within caves which I found was a tactically unsound decision. The main plot points of the novel revolve entirely around the Empire but we know very little of it, especially as the political situation is kept under wraps for most of the book and, even then, only briefly hinted at. Additionally, the layout of this world felt unfamiliar. Are these caves at the foot of the Empire? Is there a gate, like the one to Mordor, that guards the Empire? Or is the cave miles away from the Empire? While I have no doubt that the sequel will be heading in a much more detailed direction concerning the Empire, I couldn’t help but be disappointment by the tid-bits we were meant to be satisfied with.
Nevertheless, the reason Death Sworn has received such a favorable rating, from me at any rate, is because of the ethical situations it manages to bring up. Is it moral to use death to achieve a higher purpose? It is ethical to consort to evil means to destroy another source of evil? Is not making the most use of an individual’s death a dishonor to their life? As Ileni is surrounded by assassins, all of whom make decisions about death almost all the time, these are fascinating questions that are probed over the course of the narrative. Cypess questions the value of a life, particularly during a political war, which I appreciated.
Ultimately, Death Sworn is not a perfect work, but I will be on board for the sequel to this duet. While this novel felt, in many ways, like a prequel to the true story, it was still an extraordinarily entertaining introduction into this world and its characters. Although I fear that hardcore fans of fantasy may be disappointed, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the sequel more than makes it up to them (and me!).