Title: Grave Mercy
Author: Robin LaFevers/ R.L. LaFevers
Genre: young-adult, historical fiction, supernatural fiction
Series: His Fair Assassin #1
Pages: 549 (ARC edition)
Published: April 2012
Source: ARC from publisher/fellow blogger for review
Why be the sheep, when you can be the wolf?
Seventeen-year-old Ismae escapes from the brutality of an arranged marriage into the sanctuary of the convent of St. Mortain, where the sisters still serve the gods of old. Here she learns that the god of Death Himself has blessed her with dangerous gifts—and a violent destiny. If she chooses to stay at the convent, she will be trained as an assassin and serve as a handmaiden to Death. To claim her new life, she must destroy the lives of others.
Ismae's most important assignment takes her straight into the high court of Brittany—where she finds herself woefully under prepared—not only for the deadly games of intrigue and treason, but for the impossible choices she must make. For how can she deliver Death’s vengeance upon a target who, against her will, has stolen her heart?
I loved this fictional, slightly supernatural look at a historic event (the annexation of Brittany by France in the late 15th century.) I know that a lot of people had issues from Ismae's varying characterization to a certain lack of action for a novel about a poison-immune assassin nun, but I wholeheartedly was not among them. If books were food, I would eat this for breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert without becoming tired of it. I couldn't read it fast eenough. Though it's slightly more concerned with court politics and baronial/ducal maneuvering than wielding out Mortain-sanctioned-death, Grave Mercy may not be the wild ride I anticipated before starting, but I very much appreciated the story and characters (Duval <3) brought to life in this first installment of the His Fair Assassin trilogy. The lucky fact that I have some background knowledge on the history of France/Brittany's struggles for independence also helped me understand all the convoluted political scenarios the cast must subtly overcome as Ismae works to protect herself, those she cares about and her country from those who would betray them.
Grave Mercy started out perfectly for me (an assassination attempt by page 22 in the ARC version!) and never really let me down in the hundreds of pages after. There are slower parts - particularly once Ismae meets love interest/opponent/ally Gavriel Duval - but for me? I love a good intrigue and betrayal set amongst scheming courtiers; so even though the middle part is short on assassin action, I wasn't ever bored. Actually, this is a book that gave me emotional whiplash as my allegiances, theories and ideas jumped about, from character to character as the pages flipped by. While the "big mystery" and overall villain might not have been as obscure as it could've been, I appreciated the ride and fun it took for Ismae and Duval to get here. It doesn't hurt that I have a hell of a bookcrush on fictional Gaviel Duval or that I'm one of the few who also really, really loved the ending. So be warned - this is a polarizing book with a polarizing end, but I found it entirely worthwhile and unpredictable.
Mortain is one of the old gods of Brittany, slowly lost as the sway of Christianity swept through Europe, and Grave Mercy set right during this time, in 1485. In Brittany, an order of nuns keeps the faith with the old god of Death, termed as a mere "Saint" before outsiders. Cast out, feared and unwanted even before birth, Ismae is a natural fit in the sanctuary. While her opinions on men go from "do not want" to "gimme some" a little tooo quickly to be entirely believable, I really enjoyed Ismae as a narrator. Her inner monologue is wry, and often her observations had a touch of humor ("I comfort myself with the knowledge that if Duval ever feels smothered by me, it will be because I am holding a pillow over his face and commending his soul to Mortain.") that lightened an otherwise intrigue-heavy and serious plot. Her voice is strong and sure, if not exactly spectacular or truly memorable. My affection lies mainly for other characters, but Ismae herself makes for a much- more-than-decent protagonist for which to root for.
There are missed opportunities here, for all that I hardly noticed as I read. Looking back, without the immediate rush of, "OH THAT WAS SO GOOD!" clouding my brain, I can see the complaints about Ismae's abrupt about-face (even if I don't share in them), but the worst neglected potential is with the case of tertiary characters Sybella and Annith. Both are co-initiaties/novices with Ismae, but nothing is really done with either. They don't posses life - they just serve to move the plot along and help Ismae when it's needed. It seems fairly obvious the next book (Dark Triumph, out in 2013) could be Sybella's story and I hope it is. As the first novel leaves it, both are underdeveloped and in dire need of more authorial attention.
With a historical fiction base and a supernatural flair, Grave Mercy is an impressive and heartening first novel in the His Fair Assassin series. While Ismae's story is over and done, entirely resolved in the novel (and I am truly grateful for that), I will doubtless be tuning in to see what Mortain and his handmaidens have in store as their country and Duchess continue their fight against France.
"It is all we have left to us. And while it is more than I ever dared dream, it is nowhere near enough."
“... and while I am Death's daughter and walk in His dark shadow, surely the darkness can give way to light sometimes.”