Why be the sheep when you can be the wolf?
Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers (Houghton Mifflin) is about a young woman named Ismae Rienne in 15th Century Brittany. Ismae escapes an abusive arranged marriage and is taken to the convent of St. Mortain, the patron saint of death. There she is trained to be Death’s handmaiden—an assassin. Ismae’s biggest assignment takes her to the Duchess’ court where she is to uncover, and get rid of, traitors to the crown. At court she must pose as mistress to the Duchess’ half-brother—and most trusted advisor—Gavriel Duval, and determine where his true loyalties lie. Now not only must Ismae protect the Duchess and her kingdom, but she must also protect her heart from loving the man the convent would have her kill.
From the moment you start reading this book, you can feel the author’s passion for the time period. Not only is it clear that LaFevers has done her research into the customs and political issues of the time, but also the language she uses and the narrative voice speak volumes to her love of the period. Grave Mercy is masterfully written. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn she was a medieval courtier—or dare I say assassin—in another life.
I admit that there were times when I was momentarily lost in all the political titles, not being well-versed in European politics and hierarchies, but LaFevers has included enough detail that I quickly caught up. And what is truly impressive is that it is all made clear without the author’s voice breaking through Ismae’s narrative voice to provide explanation. By that I mean it is realistic that Ismae would already know the meanings of social titles, so why would she stop to explain such things to the reader? It takes a very firm understanding of the time period, and the characters place within it, to be able pull off such writing successfully; LaFevers does it with flying colours.
Ismae is an extremely powerful heroine. True she has been trained to be physically strong and an exceptional fighter, but her spirit is where her strength really lies. Ismae finds the strength to overcome her poor childhood, where she was mocked and abused, and to stand up to people who have greater societal and mental power over her. She learns to step outside the shadow of giants and think for herself, and I found that very admirable. At first I was concerned by how blood-thirsty she is, but as the story went on I quickly came to understand the mentality of her society better, and to see her motives. I was sorry to say goodbye to Ismae, but all books must come to an end, even if her story doesn’t. I hope we will see more of her in the future His Fair Assassin series.
There are so many wonderful characters in this book: some good, some bad, and some so duplicitous you have no idea whether to trust them until the very end. Filled to the brim with intrigue, deception, murder and romance, you will be hard-pressed to put Grave Mercy down.