Book Review: Death Sworn by Leah Cypess

Posted February 9, 2014 by Kara in book review / 8 Comments

Book Review:  Death Sworn by Leah CypessDeath Sworn by Leah Cypess
Series: Death Sworn #1
Published by Greenwillow Books on March 4th, 2014
Genres: fantasy, young adult
Pages: 352
Format: eARC
Source: Publisher
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three-half-stars

When a young sorceress is exiled to teach magic to a clan of assassins, she will find that secrets can be even deadlier than swords. From the critically acclaimed Leah Cypess comes a dangerous and eerie fantasy about murder, shocking discoveries, and fiery star-crossed romance that readers of Cinda Williams Chima and Robin LaFevers won't be able to put down.Ileni is losing her magic. And that means she's losing everything: her position as the rising star of her people, her purpose in life, and even the young man she loves. Sent to the assassins' cave, hidden deep within the mountains, she expects no one will ever hear from her again. The last two sorcerers sent died within weeks of each other. Accidents? Or something more sinister? As Ileni navigates the dangers—both natural and human—of the caves, she'll discover secrets that have been kept for decades. And she'll find an ally in Sorin, the deadly young man who could be the assassins' next leader. With Sorin determined to protect her, sparks—magical and romantic—will fly. But will even he understand the choice she must make in the end?

Death Sworn has been receiving some pretty mixed reviews so I wasn’t sure what to expect going in (especially since I hadn’t even read the synopsis!)  While this wasn’t the perfect fantasy novel, it was absolutely a pleasant surprise and a whole lot of fun to read.

I think what I was most missing from Death Sworn was the world-building, and the since of vastness that comes with reading fantasy.  Ileni spends all of her time in an underground network of caverns, and only ever interacts with a handful of people.  We know there are people and places outside of Ileni’s little world, but since we don’t actually get to see these things, the scale of Death Sworn felt very small.  I would also have appreciated a little bit of an explanation about the magic.  Apparently everyone has magic – but at the same time, not.  Ileni is a Renegai sorceress and has been training her whole life to learn magic.  Now, she is a tutor to the assassin’s and from what I gather, all the assassin’s have magical power.  But not all of the Renegai do.  It’s strange and weird and I wish there was a better explanation for it all.  Why are the Renegai in charge of magic if not all of their people have it, while all the assassin’s do?

But what Death Sworn is lacking in world-building, it more than makes up for with a twisty-turny plot and engaging characters.  Ileni’s main priority, now that she is losing her magic and is in charge of teaching the assassins her craft, is to find out what happened to the last two magical tutors that came before her.  Each man was murdered, and apparently using magic.  The author throws a lot of red herrings in the readers’ way, and I have to say I was very surprised by the outcome.  So surprised, in fact, that I thought it came completely out of left field.  Maybe that was me being a lazy reader, but I wish there would have been more clues as to who the real culprit was.  It felt unsatisfying, to say the least.

Let’s talk about Sorin.  Sorin is what made me unable to put Death Sworn down.  The assassin in charge of protecting Ileni and helping her get accustomed to life underground, Sorin was a complicated character.  It was clear early on that he was going to be the one person Ileni could trust in the assassins’ guild, but that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t exactly who he seemed to be: a cold, calculated killer.  Sorin is deadly and ambitious and wants nothing more than to be useful to his Master.  He believes all the strange cult-like things the Master teaches the assassins.  But at the same time, there is a wild, rebellious streak in him that I found endearing and captivating.  

I loved the romance between Ileni and Sorin for a lot of reasons, not least of which was the complex power dynamic.  When Ileni first joins the assassins, she is feared and respected because they’re sure she has a great power.  Sorin fears and respects her, even though he could probably kill her. And Ileni knows she holds that power over him.  This dynamic isn’t one that is usually seen in any YA that I’ve ever read, so it was refreshing and exciting.  I also loved that Ileni was more experienced than Sorin romantically and also sexually.  While it wasn’t totally “sex positive” Death Sworn presented a healthy outlook on a young woman’s sexuality (including Ileni practicing safe sex!!)

Ileni was the shining star of Death Sworn.  When she first arrives at the caverns, she is wholly depressed.  She doesn’t care if she lives or dies, and this gives her an edge over the assassins that could surely kill her.  This fatalism leads to a recklessness that I enjoyed.  She threw herself into harm’s way, not because she was stupid, but because she didn’t care.  I loved watching her figure out her new purpose in life and slowly regain that will to live.  By the last pages of the novel, she was fucking fierce.  The best part?  None of this growth had to do with the romance – it all came from within Ileni and her belief in doing the right thing.

I’m not exactly sure what to rate this one.  Death Sworn was by far one of the most fun-to-read novels I’ve read in a long time, but I expected a little bit more in the way of world-building, especially for a high fantasy.  I loved that the ending, while a slight cliffhanger, also gives readers the satisfaction of a complete plot arc within one book.  I can’t wait to see what’s next for Ileni.

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8 responses to “Book Review: Death Sworn by Leah Cypess

  1. Assassins and a twisty turny plot? Yeah I am okay with a lack of world building if the book is engaging and interesting and keeps me guessing AND ALSO FUN. Fun is really important, I think. Even though you gave this 3.5 stars I am pumped up because you know, 3.5 is not NEGATIVE. Fab review, Bekka!

    • The end of the book definitely promised more in the way of world building with the sequel, so I’m not TOTALLY disappointed. But YES this book was so much fun!

  2. Amy

    I don’t read a whole lot of fantasy, but I am really excited for this one!! I’m glad that the characters are strong since I am a very character driven reader. It sound like even though the world building was lacking, it was still a great book. I will be reading it soon. Fabulous review!!

    • I hope you like it when you get to it! It wasn’t perfect, but I reallllly loved Ileni and how much she grew over the course of the novel. If you’re a character driven reader, I definitely think this will work for you!

  3. I hadn’t even heard of this one!

    But fantasy is my favourite genre, and engaging characters are the most important thing to me….so I shall keep an eye on this one!

  4. It sounds so entertaining that I want to give it a try. Ileni herself sounds so intriguing. I love that she seems fierce. Hopefully, the world building won’t be an issue for me, because Death Sworn sounds pretty fun.

    -P.E. @ The Sirenic Codex

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