Written by: Leah Cypess
Published by: Greenwillow Books
Release date: March 4th 2014
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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.
I can sum up my issue(s) with Death Sworn in one word: Inconsistent. Not only was this book inconsistent with my expectations (which wouldn’t count as a flaw, by itself), but the inconsistency/inadequacy of its worldbuilding, magic system, characters, and romance, made this a really sub-par read, for me.
In exchange for being left alone, the Renegai continually send magic tutors to the group of assassins who live in a system of caves nearby. However, the last two tutors have died mysteriously. So when it’s discovered that Ileni is losing her magic, she’s chosen for (and willingly embarks upon) a suicide mission to be the next tutor. It’s Ileni’s job not only to continue teaching magic (while hers continues to dwindle), but also to figure out how her predecessors died – or if they were murdered, and by whom. All the while, the Renegai and these assassins are living in the shadow of the Empire, from which they were apparently exiled a long time ago.
This worldbuilding sounds like a great foundation. But that’s all it is. A foundation. We get almost no other background information except what I just explained above. Why were the Renegai exiled? Why aren’t they really doing anything about it? What’s Ileni’s plan, anyway? How is solving the murders going to help anyone when she’s just gonna die there? Who exactly is this Empire, in the first place? Does it even have a name?? I have no idea.
The Magic System
In Death Sworn, the amount of magic a person possesses can be used up, and then it’s restored again over time. Awesome, that makes sense. Ileni is apparently able to restore less and less magic every time she uses a spell — so she’s losing her magic — and when we begin the story, she has very little magic left. Great, I’m with you so far.
My question is this: How does Ileni use magic in ways that seem miraculous (when the plot necessitates it), when she can barely do anything else? Oh, I answered my own question. Because the plot necessitates it. Ileni keeps complaining about how utterly small and weak her magic has become, and yet it is always there and strong enough to save her life. This inconsistency isn’t explained, and it’s one that really bothers me.
Also, her ability to sense other people’s magic is really weird. Sometimes she can, sometimes she can’t, with no explanation as to why it works sometimes and not others. And it doesn’t have to do with her dwindling magic, because sensing someone else’s magic is supposed to be a separate ability from actually possessing magic. So why…?
Oh, wait! I know why! Because for plotty reasons, she can’t sense someone’s magic — it has to surprise her later. Gotcha.
There’s also an inconsistency as to when Ileni’s “wards” (spells that protect her from violent attacks) work. The wards are supposed to only work if she’s genuinely convinced that she’s being threatened. Okay, awesome, I like that. So there’s a place in the book where they have to work, and they do. And yet, almost immediately after that, she says explicitly that she would never ever believe that the person who attacked her (whom the wards deflected) would hurt her, ever. Inconsistent! I can’t! This just bothers me so much.
The Main Character: Ileni
But all the above, I might have been able to live with. Might. It seems like those things could be redeemable with some serious extra explanation in book two. The thing I can’t live with, is Ileni herself, and my lack of any emotional connection to her whatsoever. Not relatability, even — just no overall understanding of her emotions.
Despite her situation of willingly accepting a suicide missing, Ileni is bland, and her emotions rarely made sense to me. She starts off as snarky and strong, a really promising character. I thought she’d run into this suicide mission with resolve and purpose. But she quickly loses her attitude and becomes somewhat complacent. She does finally come back around, by the very end, but by that time I was too annoyed with her to really care. Her emotions are all over the place. Maybe this is believable… maybe… She’s losing her magic; she comes to realize how much of a threat the assassins really are to her; and she runs into some trouble completing her “mission” of finding out how her predecessors died. That’s rough, right? However, for someone who willingly accepted a suicide mission, it just seems like odd character development. Her feelings also came across as really flat — I might have been compelled to sympathize with her if her emotions were portrayed vividly, in a way that made me feel for her. But they weren’t. =/
Many of her opinions also seem to change overnight. …No, scratch that. They did change overnight. She goes into this mission thinking the assassins are all horrible people, right? They’re killers. Her own people, the Renegai, are hugely, overwhelmingly against killing of any kind. So it’s understandable that she’d see the assassins as horrible people. Even when she learns that they’re fighting a secret war against this vaguely-evil Empire, she’s still in that mindset of thinking they’re all evil killers. Then… then!! She literally gets hit on the head, and wakes up with a change of heart: “These poor boys have been trained day after day to be willing to risk their lives, and probably die, to defeat the Empire! I still think killing is bad, but they’re working for such a noble cause!” (My face: O_o)
Additionally, her stance on killing (which she has been raised to believe with all her heart) also changes almost overnight. Warning: very mild spoilers ahead. So, Ileni actually ends up killing someone herself. …And she says it’s easy. Because apparently when you hate someone, killing them is easy. Not, “I did this in self-defense, it was the right thing to do,” kind of easy. It was, “I hated him, so killing was easy.” I don’t even… like… okay?! I don’t even know what to do with that. End of spoilers.
Ileni’s emotions are also really strange when it comes to her ex-boyfriend/fiancé, Tellis. Tellis is constantly in Ileni’s thoughts, because apparently Ileni was in love with him. However, I never felt any emotion from her about Tellis. She’s constantly thinking about him, but it was all very factual and unemotional and weird. He could’ve been erased from the story entirely, without any loss whatsoever.
…Was there romance? I know Ileni and this other guy ended up kind of becoming somewhat friendly… and then I guess there was kissing… Aren’t there supposed to be emotions involved somewhere? Yeah, none of that. I felt nothing. =/
I really didn’t enjoy this book, at all. I do think some people might be able to step past my nit-picky worldbuilding/magic system issues, and maybe they won’t find Ileni as annoyingly inconsistent as I did… in which case, you might like this book! (That’s really why I stretched and gave this one 2 stars.) Personally, I just couldn’t. Everything about the worldbuilding and magic system was so vague or just downright inconsistent. And the plot moved so slowly, as well! The book just seemed to drag on and on, and the characters were not strong enough to hold my interest. I did hold out hope that a little romance might spice things up, but that turned out to be super bland, as well. Unfortunately, I definitely won’t be picking up the sequel.