Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers
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 should start this review by saying I was not expecting too much from this novel. I bought it on my Nook because I liked the cover and the idea of historical fantasy / assassin nuns. However, I expected it to be extremely silly and a young adult version of a trashy romance novel, while also tossing in some royal political Philippa Gregory-style intrigue.
Admittedly, there are moments when it becomes borderline trashy romance, but so much of the novel is taken up with character development, plots, mysteries, schemes, and politics of medieval/Renaissance Brittany that this can be overlooked. Gavriel Duval, the character who has “stolen Ismae’s heart” is a wonderfully complex character without any of those typical brooding descriptions. Ismae is a hard nut to crack, firmly stubborn, sometimes blind, and wildly bitter — and rightfully so.
The historical time frame is a bit hazy, but if I knew more about weapons and poisons and the political history of Brittany I could narrow it down pretty well. LaFevers does an excellent job of describing historical artifacts and the different tricks courtiers are notorious for (having read The Courtier and The Prince for a Renaissance history class, it is clear LaFevers has done her research). The drawback for me as a reader is my lack of knowledge of Brittany. If I had known more about this little duchy, the century would have become more clear. Because of this hindrance, I had to suspend any disbelief I may have held in regards to historical context.
The fantasy, however, is fantastic (ha!). I love the idea of combining old religions with Christianity, masking them with different names. Apparently there were 9 gods that ruled Brittany, later renamed as saints for the sake of the Church. Ismae’s is the god of Death, and not Death as we would understand it. At first we find Ismae misunderstanding her tasks as missions of vengeance, but she soon grows to understand (and become blessed by Death) that her mission is one of mercy.
I read through this novel as quickly as I could between job interviews and visits to the vet for my poor cat – I’m sure if I had a full day to sit and be alone, this would have been plowed through in a few hours. I was drawn to the tale, for that’s what it is. A really good story – not of literary merit or praise or any such thing as that, but a tale of faith, death, and love in a time of political turmoil.
Rating: ★★★ of 5
Goodreads: 4.09 of 5