March 21, 2012 by Heidi
Title: Grave Mercy [Amazon|GoodReads]
Author: R.L. LaFevers [Website|Twitter|Facebook]
Standing: First in a new series, His Fair Assassin, though it seems they will be more like companion novels, so yay!
Genre: Young Adult, Historical, Fantasy
Published: April 3rd, 2012 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Format: Kindle edition.
Source: ARC from publisher via NetGalley.
Challenge: YA/MG Fantasy Challenge
I can dodge a blow or block a knife. I am impervious to poison and know a dozen ways to escape a chokehold or garrote wire. But kindness? I do not know how to defend against that.
Ismae is forced into an arranged marriage to a man who terrifies her, by another who is just as bad. When her new husband sees the scar marking her as a daughter of Death, he beats her savagely, and locks her away. She is rescued by those who would send her to the convent of St. Mortain, filled with women who serve as the handmaidens of Death. There she is trained in all manner of assassination tactics before being released on her first assignments to test her for full initiation into the convent. These tests lead her on an assignment to the high court, where she must ferret out traitors and protect the young Duchess. She is supposed to watch one man in particular, but soon Ismae doesn’t know who she can or cannot trust, including herself.
You know those books that fill you up and leave you positively giddy and excited about life? Well, this may sound odd, but that for me was a book about this female assassin who is the daughter of Death. Morbid much? Well, maybe a little, but in this case I don’t think so. Grave Mercywas a beautifully rendered historical fiction with touches of fantasy, mythology, and a slow burning romance that will have any girl holding her breath. I was hooked in from the first paragraph, where we learn that Ismae bears a scar from her mother’s attempt to abort her as a fetus; the fact that she survived indicated that she was the daughter of Death himself.
The story takes place in Brittany, which is now the upper NW corner of France, but at the time was its own country sitting uncomfortably between England and France. LaFevers creates a haunting and wonderful mythology where the country’s nine gods have been transposed into saints under the Christian church (as the Christian church was wont to do). Ismae escapes a desperate and cruel life under the abusive men that raised her and bought her as wife, to study under the tutelage of the sisters of St. Mortain’s convent. The convent trains its members as assassins, as they are all offspring of their saint, Death himself. Literally. Like Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series, or Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar, the gods are very present and important in a more direct way that we often see. As full initiates of St. Mortain, these women work as his handmaidens, dolling out vengeance to those who put Brittany in danger.
Dudes, can I even express how awesome Ismae and her sisters in Death are?! Apparently not without reverting into surfer lingo. If you love strong women who don’t take no crap from no man, Grave Mercy is for you! Ismae and the other girls all have horrors in their pasts that have led them to the convent. At St. Mortain’s, they are offered a chance at a new life, one where they will be the wolves that prey. They are trained in skills of weapons, combat, poisons, and seduction. They have a seeress that forsees those who have been marqued for death. To them, their work is not murder, it is a sacrament to their god and father. Ismae has her own unique talents given by her father; she can see maques indicating when and how a man will die, and she is immune to poison. Ismae gratefully accepts a place at the convent, looking forward to proving herself and casting vengeance on men, who in her experience are only cruel and untrustworthy.
And then there’s Duval. Duval! Prepare for the slow-burn romance of the year because man oh man. It’s a good thing corsets weren’t around yet, or there’d be lots of swooning going on up in here. Duval is unwillingly saddled with Ismae, each have their own agendas and countless reasons not to trust one another. And they don’t. Not only is this a romance that takes hundreds of pages to unfold, it develops from the very depths of mistrust. Personally, I loved Duval instantly. It was clear by the relationships he had with his friends, and the fierce dedication and support he showed for his half-sister and country, that he was a wonderful man. And he would have to be to earn any leeway from Ismae, who has only known men as dangerous, conniving, treacherous, and cruel. Duval never pushes Ismae, or asks her to be anything but who she is, and I love it.
I will say that this is one of those books that I’m torn about seeing the ‘YA’ label on. Yes, this is great for YA readers, but at the same time I am sad at the amount of adults who will not read this series because of it. The characters and situations, to me, make this a very adult book, so I’m hoping there will be plenty who give it a shot! I am so excited to see this series continue, largely because I believe it will be set up in a companion novel sort of fashion. The second book will be about another of the girls at the convent, Sybella, and so I am hopping the third will be about their friend Annith. I love series that do this, and though I adored Duval and Ismae, I am happy they won’t be the focus of Dark Triumph. Of course, that doesn’t mean I’ll get all huffy if they were to make an appearance!
Likelihood that I’ll be back for more: I’ve already considered stalking and/or bribes to get my hands on Dark Triumph asap. Not only that, but I can see myself rereading Grave Mercy in the future, such was my love for it!
Recommended for: Anyone whose favorite SoIaF character is Arya, or I suppose fans of strong women who persevere through tough times in general. This is a fantastic historical fiction, even for those who prefer theirs fantasy free–all of the politics are very true to life, and it would be a strong book even without the mythological elements (though I loved the mythological elements!).
Real life repercussions of reading this book: I learned something very important about reading historical fiction! If you aren’t familiar with the history don’t go read about it before you finish the book. Total spoilers. If you’re interested, I read some history of Brittany on Wikipedia, and the author also has a lovely post on the specific era here. Do read it, but after.