Tuesday, February 11, 2014

ARC Review: Death Sworn by Leah Cypess

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!). 


  1. Hm..I am intrigued cos I do wanna try a book by her

  2. I'm defintiely finding myslef swaying more towards fantasy novels lately too, if you had asked me to read a fantasy novel a couple of years back, I probably wouldn't have considered it, but I'm the different worlds that we get to experience. I love how you've described Death Sworn, it's detail sounds so rich and complex, also I adore my heroines who are fierce! Thanks for another gorgeous review Keertana and for putting another brilliant book on my radar!

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  4. Though I've heard somewhat mixed reviews on this one, I can't help but be intrigued by your review, Keertana! It takes true strength from an author to really spin a story that explores morality, as well. Lovely thoughts!

  5. Ooh, yeah. I think I'd need to know more about the world outside the caves. Interesting choice but they can't stay there forever, especially in a story that seems like it's supposed to be action-filled (I mean, assassins.).

  6. I had similar thoughts on this one Keertana! I enjoyed it very much overall, though I agree with you on the world-building. I liked that it wasn't as sprawling a world because sometimes I get lost in fantasy worlds and can't sort my way through, but I want more history moving forward. I loved the slow burn romance as well, and I'm glad you're on board for the next book! I definitely am too:)

  7. I read Mistwood many moons ago and did not really enjoy it. However, I can see Cypress' writing prowess excels in this genre. But there was just something elusive about the characters' personalities that didn't quite hit the target for me. And I can see that it's also the same in this case.

    Wonderful review, Keertana. :)

  8. "One of the best elements to this tale is the fact that Cypess’s assassins are deadly. " YES to this. I love that these assassins actually assassinate and are willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish their mission. They are dedicated, but I also love that we see that Sorin has his own mind as well.

    "Sorin and Ileni’s romance, too, is impeccably timed, starting out as a very firm friendship before progressing any further." Their romance is one of my favorite parts of this book, exactly because it doesn't overpower everything, and is paced so perfectly to maximize tension and swoon.

    I know we discussed this story at length and the lack of world building and connection to Ileni were two issues that I also struggled with. Both of which I'm hoping will improve in book 2.

    This book does ask so many great questions throughout. That was one of my favorite elements as well. Thorough, thoughtful review.

  9. This sounds interesting. I'm also curious to see how the second book either compliments this one and/or fixes the problems you had with this one. I might wait to see what you think of that one, but I still think I may put it on my wishlist.

  10. I haven't read anything by this author, but this sounds like a promising series. However, I want to see what you think of the whole series before I decide. You've certainly given me plenty to recommendations that I won't run out of things to read before this series reaches its conclusion!

    And your observation about the ethical questions made me think about it's relevancy to the current world situations. Maybe that is where your mind went to. I probably wouldn't have looked so deeply into a fantasy novel, but I love that you brought those questions to light. Definitely something to keep in mind when I read it. I'm wondering how they are answered.


  11. I'm also drawn to fantasy more lately, and I have plans to read this one. I'm glad to hear you liked it enough to want to read the sequel, and that it raises interesting ethical questions, but it's a shame you couldn't connect with Ileni during most of the story and that the worldbuilding is lacking. I'm still going to read this, but I'll definitely adjust my expectations. Lovely review Keertana!

  12. I love all your reviews, but those for fantasy novels are my favorite of all. It simply sounds like we have the same taste and we both love this genre so much. I see that some things of this story are typical, characters who are supposed to hate each other and all that. But still the idea of assassins, magicians in one book is mostly winning combination for me. I'm so glad you enjoyed this one despite its flaws. Great review, Keertana :)

  13. I haven't read a lot of fantasy novels lately, but i been really enjoying them growing up so this interests me. Did not realize this was one of those. I don't mind if the first book in a fantasy is a bit on a weak side, since they do tend to build over time.

  14. As always, I appreciate your telling us what there is to love as well as what's NOT to love about this book. I have a hit or miss relationship with fantasy, but your bringing up ethical dilemmas in this book makes me much more interested in reading this! I'm always impressed if that's handled well in books.

    Wendy @ The Midnight Garden

  15. I liked this one as well, Keertana! I have been a on a real fantasy kick lately and Death Sworn didn't disappoint. I was also a little bit wary about a book being set entirely within a series of caves--but that dark, dank, clausterphobic tone really set up the mood of this book and it actually ended up working for me. The couple of scenes that do take place outside of the caves made ME feel like I was gulping in the fresh air!

    I really, really grew to like Illeni--she is a tough character to connect with--lets face it, she's a total downer (and for good reason) but by the book's end I was so proud of her growth.

    I LOVED Sorin--right from the start--I need more of him.

    I'm stoked about the sequel because it would appear that it's going to take place outside of the caves and I think Illeni is going to kick some serious butt. And more Sorin/ Illeni kissing would also be good:)


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