Published on April 3, 2012 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Genres: Fantasy, Historical, Young Adult
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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?
Grave Mercy was one of those books that I heard all about, something recommended to me by several friends, so when I started reading it I felt obligated to finish. The novel started out shaky. Present tense isn’t too common and took some time to get used to, but was easily ignored by the time I got about halfway through the novel. As far as the actual plot goes, I thoroughly enjoyed the combination of historical background (although I’m no history buff so I couldn’t tell you if any of it was based on fact or not) with the creation of a new world of assassin nuns–the daughters of Death. Grave Mercy takes the tale of young Ismae as she joins these women in their worship of St. Mortain and learns the art of murder. She becomes entwined in the court intrigue, and the life of one Gavriel Duval–a close adviser to the duchess–as the nobles attempt to preserve Brittany from the rest of France. But her adventure is not just to save the nation, but understand herself and what it means to be a daughter of Death.
I bear a deep red stain that runs from my left shoulder down to my right hip, a trail left by the herbwitch’s poison that my mother used to try to expel me from her womb. That I survived, according to the herbwitch, is no miracle but a sign I have been sired by the god of death himself.
The novel opening gets right to the point. Ismae, LaFevers’ leading lady, is the daughter of the god of death. Her scar and the details around her birth have left her at the hands of an abusive family, her only solace the herbwitch her parents met with to abort her when she’s saved and taken to the convent of St. Mortain. As Death’s child, she takes on the role of one of His handmaidens and learns the art of assassination from the Sisters, all at the age of fourteen. Not long after the plot jumps to three years later–three years. I want to know what happened, how her training went, what all she learned instead of little tidbits here and there. The whole “killer nuns” concept is really interesting but I want to know more. Most of the book ends up focusing on Ismae’s time at court playing “mistress” to Duval which, don’t get me wrong, wasn’t too bad to read about but could get boring at times (although if you’re a fan of historical fiction and court intrigues then you’ll be enthralled).
LaFevers’ cast, however, was far from boring. Ismae is a seventeen year-old assassin who’s thrown into a world of conspiracies, secret meetings, murder attempts, and a little romance. She doesn’t come off as a teenager, though, which is why I felt this book would’ve been better without the YA label. Although the concept of an “adult” was an earlier age in the past than it is now, I felt like Grave Mercy read more like an adult book because of Ismae. Her Sisters at the convent also portray older girls than their ages suggest, except Annith, who is like Ismae’s younger sister and forever stuck in the convent.
“I am only a year younger than you and Sybella. And Sybella was my age when they first sent her out.” She glaes at me, not wanting my words of comfort. “Do they know how many classes you’ve skipped?”
“Sister Serafina needed my help in the workshop!”
“Even so,” she sniffs. “I am better at dancing and coquetry, not to mention I can beat you seven out of ten times in our practices.”
Then there’s Gavriel Duval. So it’s clear from the start that something’s going to happen between the loyal, mysterious noble and Ismae–especially since she’s being presented as his “cousin” (a.k.a. mistress) upon his return to court. What I love about their romance is that it’s not about “oh, whoever will I choose?” or “I’m not good enough for him” which are two of my pet peeves. Instead, there’s the initial physical attraction, followed by days of “we’re just working partners” to something much more. I’d describe it as sweet–and quite refreshing. It made me feel like I was swooning over Duval (although I don’t think lords like him exist anymore).
The sailor nods and goes off to collect the horses. I can feel Duval studying me; it makes my skin itch. After a moment, he shakes his head, as if unable to believe the trap that had been sprung upon him. “They will think me besotted fool.”
I shrug and keep my attention fixed on the stables, willing the old sailor to return with our horses as quickly as possible. “If the boot fits, milord…”
He snorts. “I am many things, but besotted with you is not one of them.”
As a whole, Grave Mercy was a good read. The characters are realistic and fit the world LaFevers creates. It was a little long for my taste–not because I don’t like long books but the events at court during the middle of it made it seem to drag more. This is a great book for historical YA fans, especially if you’re into France-based stories. Although there is a decent amount of violence, I recommend Grave Mercy for middle-grade readers and up, though be cautioned that some of the content may not be entirely appropriate. Otherwise, definitely check it out and feel free to share your opinions in the comments below.