Grave Mercy is the first book in Robin LaFevers' new His Fair Assassin trilogy. Grave Mercy is a satisfying blend of historical fiction and paranormal romance novel. Ismae Rienne is marked with a hideous scar on her back, "left by the herbwitch's poison that (her) mother used to try to expel" her from the womb. The fact that she survived this is considered proof that she was sired by the god of death himself. After an attempt by her abusive father to marry her off results in her near-murder, Ismae is spirited away to the Abbey of Mortain. There, she and other daughters of Mortain, the god of death, are trained to become assassins. Ismae is eventually sent to the court of Anne of Brittany as a spy and an instrument of Mortain's justice. She struggles, however, with her growing feelings for one of her potential targets.
I found the romantic elements to be believable, without overwhelming the story.I was reminded a bit of Kristen Cashore's Graceling and Fire in this. LaFevers's prose is not quite as lavish as Cashore's, and the paranormal aspects in Grave Mercy are a bit more subtle, but the historical detail adds considerable substance to the book. Anne's court is a dangerous place, full of intrigue and metaphorical as well as literal poisons. It's not clear at all who the young Duchess, and Ismae, should trust - everyone falls under suspicion (and those who don't, should).
LaFevers immerses the reader in 1488 Brittany, through foods, clothing, social customs, and behaviors. I would have liked to see an afterword explaining which characters in the book were historical and which were fictional. Perhaps this will be added for the finished book. As it was, I was intrigued enough to do some online research regarding Anne of Brittany. Certainly I will never forget her as a character, young, dignified, and besieged from all sides.
Ismae is a strong and sympathetic character, too, of course. She chafes under the gender restrictions of her time, but never lets them hold her back when action is truly needed. There are a number of solid supporting characters in the book, male and female. I hope that some of them will recur in the next book of the trilogy: Dark Triumph (which apparently features a different protagonist).
Ismae's voice has an old-fashioned quality that adds to Grave Mercy's immersion of the reader in late 15th century Europe. Here are a couple of examples:
"The maids in my village talked of falling in love with a man at first sight. That has always seemed naught but foolishness to me. Until I enter Sister Serafina's workshop. It is unlike anything I have ever seen, full of strange sights and smells, and I tumble headlong into love.
The ceiling is high, and the room has many windows. Two small clay ovens sit on the floor, and in front of the fireplace is a range of kettles, from one big enough to cook a goat whole all the way down to one so small it could belong to the fey folk of hearth tales." (Chapter Four)
"The town is entirely enclosed by thick stone walls that stretch as far as my eye can see. Eight watchtowers loom at regular intervals. I understand now why the duchess has chosen this city for her headquarters. Surely these walls are impenetrable.
Provided the enemy comes from without." (Chapter Sixteen)
See what I mean? LaFevers uses just enough old-time language for flavor, but not enough to render the book difficult to read, or to make it difficult for modern-day teens to relate to Ismae (a fine line, indeed).
One note on audience. Grave Mercy is definitely YA, not middle grade. The book begins with Ismae's attempted rape by her new husband, and there are many later references to seduction and mistresses, etc. There is nothing that feels gratuitous, or historically inaccurate, but this is definitely more a book for high school readers than for middle schoolers.
Grave Mercy has a lot to offer teen readers: intrigue and adventure; romance and mystery; dark powers and hidden passageways. I hope that it gets wide success, and brings Robin LaFevers the acclaim that she deserves. Highly recommended for teen and adult readers, particularly (though not exclusively) women.
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children (@hmhbooks)
Publication Date: April 3, 2012
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher
© 2012 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).