Despite my professed love for science fiction, I can’t argue with the fact that fantasy is still appealing even if the majority of those genre novels, films, shows, and games seem to be set in the same medieval context. As the likes of Umberto Eco and Kyle Kallgren have discussed, that medieval world provides a useful lens for looking at our own modern-day issues. It was on that line of thought—and with some help from a Big Idea post by John Scalzi—that I decided to pick up and read Death Sworn by Leah Cypess.
The story follows a young sorceress named Illeni, who arrives in the hidden camp of assassins with a mission to tutor them in the ways of magic. Both her people, the Renegai, and the assassins are dedicated to overthrowing the Empire that has kept the land brutally oppressed. However, Illeni faces a terrible dilemma: she is the third magic tutor, with both her predecessors killed under mysterious circumstances, making her stay with the assassins a precarious one. Furthermore, she has to teach magic despite slowly losing her own power, always conscious of the fatal end she’ll probably face once the truth comes out.
Illeni interested me because she was a female protagonist, but rather than cast her as yet another idealistic magic-user ready to save the day, she’s an embittered young woman whose connection to magic is fading and stuck in a cavern full of deadly assassins. That means she has to rely on her wits and more than a little bravado to survive, which makes her victories all the more satisfying.
Her relationship with her guide Sorin holds a lot of promise, always balanced on the fine line between suspicion and trust (if not outright love). With Sorin comes the thrill of danger, whether by his hand or by her enemies, who know how to cover their tracks. I also enjoyed the development of the intrigue within the assassins’ lair, which starts off as a murder mystery and soon grows into an elaborate political intrigue. With complex characters like Sorin around, Ileni’s story offers a mix of romance, drama, intrigue, and action for all to enjoy.
Speaking of Sorin, I feel like there was a missed opportunity to explore more of the Empire from his perspective. He hinted at wanting to be more than a professional killer, even if his loyalty to the Order’s leader is absolute. What hints we got about life in the Empire came from the assassins themselves, along with the odd mole or enemy assault. I know the story was meant to keep us locked in the underground lair, but I did want just a bit more out of this tyrannical regime before the story came to a close.
As for the fantasy element in this story, I like how the use of magic isn’t thrown around without a care like it would in other stories. It’s common to find fantasy stories where wizards use their spellcraft for everything from cleaning their robes to summoning a deus ex machina to save the day (I’m looking at you, Harry Potter). Here, because Illeni’s magic is fading, her plight is much more severe. She’s a sorceress trying to stay alive in a den full of assassins, where her life is already forfeit and she’s trying to see how much she can do or learn before her inevitable death. Not only does it make her every use of magic more meaningful, but it also highlights the overall struggle to adapt to the assassins’ world. Illeni has to think more like one of her own pupils, using cunning, stealth, and well-timed attacks in the service of a higher cause (namely, justice for everyone).
In the end, Death Sworn is a pretty decent fantasy novel, conserving its magic for opportune moments. It has the benefit of satisfying its audience with plenty of romance, cool action scenes, and engaging drama that sweeps through every layer of these mysterious caverns where only the deadliest may dwell.
Bibliography: Cypess, Leah. Death Sworn. HarperCollins Publishers: New York, 2014.