Before I get started, I’ll say two things: 1) Generally, I prefer not to read this kind of royalty-centric high fantasy; 2) I’m very susceptible to readers’ peer pressure. These things came into conflict recently, but I ultimately decided to read Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers because of reason #2 and despite of reason #1. Grave Mercy is not the kind of book I’m normally drawn to, but several people recommended it to me despite my usual preferences, and I’m glad I gave it a chance.
Grave Mercy is the story of Ismae, who lives in 15th century Brittany (a small kingdom near France). At the age of fourteen, her cruel father sells her off in an arranged marriage to a man who seems equally cruel, but Ismae escapes that fate by being taken to the convent of the order of St. Mortain, the saint/god of Death.
The abbess explains their order:
You would not expect a queen to wash her own clothes or lace her own gown; she has handmaidens for that. And so it is with us; we serve as handmaidens to Death. When we are guided by His will, killing is a sacrament. [...] If you choose to stay, you will be trained in His arts. You will learn more ways to kill a man than you imagined possible. We will train you in stealth and cunning and all manner of skills that will ensure no man is ever again a threat to you.
It seems that Ismae’s actual father is Mortain himself, and as such, she has certain abilities. She chooses to stay at the convent and serve Mortain. Initiates of the order serve Mortain by using their deathly talents to carry out espionage and assassin missions. They seek to protect Brittany from outside threats, such as England and France.
After three years of training, Ismae is sent out on a mission at the royal court. Her mission is to find and kill traitors to the crown. Her cover is to serve as mistress to Gavriel Duval, an arrogant soldier (and bastard brother to the duchess). The young duchess has many marriage proposals and many enemies, and Ismae has a lot of work to do to determine who she (and the duchess) can trust.
I won’t go into all the intrigue–it’s complicated, and it’s also not the kind of plot that holds my interest very well. But I still enjoyed reading Grave Mercy because I was so interested in Ismae and her deathly order. Her character has some interesting insights on life and death. I also liked all the action and cool assassin nun gadgets, like Ismae’s teeny-tiny crossbow.
Some of the language used by the characters is a little bit anachronistic, and some aspects of the story were just annoying to me… but overall, I really liked the character of Ismae and enjoyed reading about her adventures! I’m glad I stepped out of my literary comfort zone and tried Grave Mercy, and I’ll also be picking up the sequel, Dark Triumph.
Reviewed by: Teen librarian Renata
Recommended for: Fans of old timey fantasy type books (you know what I mean); fans of assassin nuns (or people who think they might be fans of assassin nuns, if given the opportunity)