Thursday, April 12, 2012

Grave Mercy

Here's a good young adult read that just came out this month. You may have already noticed the cover in bookstores: a girl in a heavy, medieval-looking red dress. It's perhaps not a very original cover, but that dress is certainly eye-catching all the same. And once you pick up the book and read the back cover, you will definitely be intrigued.

In Grave Mercy, by Robin LaFevers, Ismae is convent-trained to be an assassin (you read that right) for her god (and father, no less), Death (it just gets weirder and weirder, doesn't it?). In this medieval world similar to ours with a political backdrop that could almost have come right out of history, the handmaidens of Death are sworn to protect the interests of their country, Brittany. Ismae has no reason to love men, having only ever been abused by them, first by her father, then by the man she was forced to marry at only 14. When her turn comes to leave the convent on a mission to protect the young Duchess and see her to the throne, she is well-prepared to take her revenge on mankind, all according to the will and plan of Death, of course. But teaming up with a nobleman named Duval complicates things. The convent wants her to spy on him, and Ismae would rather cut his throat than trust him. If only she could find an ounce of disloyalty in him, she would get the job done and return home to her sisters. But soon, Ismae finds her heart and her duty and her country embroiled in one gigantic mess.

This book was fascinating, yet I had a hard time wrapping my head around the genre. It appears historical but doesn't seem to be trying to recreate any particular historical moment (aside from France being at war with Brittany). It has elements of fantasy: Ismae's father is a god, and she has certain supernatural gifts, like the ability to see Death's marque on her victims or her immunity to poisons. The trappings of medieval religion are there, but the religion itself is all mixed up with a variety of "saints," who are known as gods to true believers, and elements of Christianity. To a Christian like me it ends up feeling very pagan, but because I see it as fantasy, I'm able to put that aside for the most part and enjoy the book. Nonetheless, it's odd.

(This paragraph contains SPOILERS.) The whole weird religious and questionable moral tone of the book drop what might have been five stars down to three and a half, maybe four, so you see that my opinion of the book is still high. There are the unfortunate morality issues. The convent assassins are trained to do whatever it takes to get in close to their victims, including becoming mistresses, if time is needed to discover if a person truly deserves assassination. Ismae, herself, is supposed to act as a mistress, and she ends up sleeping with someone near the end of the book. Yes, she falls in love with him, and I guess our society thinks that makes it okay. And our society's morals aside, that time period was rather bawdy. Think of King Henry and his six wives. Fortunately, this is no The Other Boleyn Girl, and for what's there, it's kept very clean. Still, I will never say it's all good and well when it comes to extra-marital sex. It's just not right.

But if you can ignore the messy religious juxtapositions and mostly just the morals at the end of the book, what you are left with is a solid story full of mystery, danger, political intrigue, subtle but passionate romance, historical detail, and colorful fantasy. Ismae seems like a simple girl to begin with, but she grows up and grows on you. I feel like Grave Mercy is a novel targeted to young adults because it has to be (the heroine is 17) but written for an audience that's a bit older. So, if you are an adult (particularly female) who loves young adult fiction, this book is just right for you!

Grave Mercy is Book 1 of the His Fair Assassin series. Its sequel, out in the spring of 2013, will be about one of Ismae's convent sisters.


  1. This book was full of such twists and turns that I was constantly guessing and wondering what was going to happen next. I was literally unable to put it down until it was finished, because I just wanted to know how everything was going to be brought together for the finale of the book. This was a really perfect read for me that I thoroughly enjoyed from beginning to end. I am really looking forward to the second book, and learning more of Sybella; I hope she's able to get a happy ending, too.

    1. Yes, I'm very curious about Sybella's story!


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