This is a review by a finalist judge, so will focus solely on summary and leave out additional discussion. Thanks!
It's rare that I can't tell anything about a book from its cover. This one has a twisted stone castle and mist as seen through a Gothic-style window. I wasn't sure what to expect -- but from the first page, this read like a post-conflict fairytale. The setting is Earth-like, but no country (except something vaguely European, since the characters are pale) is specified; there's magic, but mere tinges at first. Readers who appreciate more realistic fairytales will appreciate this novel.
Summary: An air of desperation marking her steps, Illeni heads into the most terrifying job in the world - that of magic tutor to a cult of assassins. She wouldn't have gone, except that to the Elders of her people, the Renegai, she's expendable. Once, the Renegai were powerful mages, but the Rathian Empire invaded, and brought them brutally to heel. The mages are in hiding, as are the assassins, but both carry the same dream - to bring the empire down. An uneasy truce cemented by the same goal, the Elders send tutors to the assassins to help them, and in return, they never fall within the assassin's contracts... or, that was the agreement. But the last two magic teachers the Elders sent have been murdered... and what can Illeni do? Nothing. Because not only has she, the lone, expendable girl, been sent away, she's been abandoned for another reason. She's losing her magic.
No one must find out the truth - no one - or her dangerous pupils, none of whom have any reason to even like her, will find out that she's expendable, too.
Conclusion: An on-trend novel with its depiction of assassins, empires, secret cabals, lies and spies, this imaginative novel has just enough grit and darkness to subvert the sort of fantasy-fairytale effect the cover implies. Fans of novels where the hero(ine)'s journey involves travel and adventure will also find this enjoyable. The sequel arrives March 2015.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library. You can find DEATH SWORN by Leah Cypress at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!