Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) 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?
Thoughts: Compared to the average YA novel, this book was wonderfully complex, dark, and didn’t pull any punches when it came to sex, death, or violence. That’s to be expected, really, when you’re dealing with a protagonist who’s an assassin. Still, there are plenty of novels that would have glossed over some of the more distressing aspects of death and warfare, where here LaFevers didn’t go out of her way to make everything full of blood and gore but instead gave respectful treatment to the topics at hand.
The premise of the novel is an interesting one. Old gods have been given new faces as Christian saints, but those who acknowledge the old ways still know them for what they are. Mortain, the old god of death, sired the protagonist, and as such it’s her destiny to become his handmaiden in a convent devoted to him. Interestingly, when it comes to a convent devoted to the god of death, you’d almost expect a more modern approach to life there, in an attempt to appeal to the modern female teen. Wearing pants all the time, and that sort of thing. Modern feminism with an old face. Instead, you get a nice little piece of historical accuracy, as the girls and women dwelling there still practice modesty, wear habits, even as they’re being trained in the arts of assassins.
Things that are easily accessible to the modern teen, however, are the ideas that not everything is as it first appears, and that blind obediance without understanding is a bad thing. Those two themes are woven into the story quite often, but not in such a heavy-handed way that leaves you rolling your eyes. The contract between Beast (ugly as sin with a friendly and enthusiastic personality) and de Lornay (almost impossibly attractive but with a cold and aloof demeanor) is a perfect example of this. You almost expect that de Lornay is working with the wrong side, simple because he’s attractive and doesn’t think much of the main character. It’s a stereotype that’s been done hundreds of times. The ugly one who’se nice is clearly good, and the pretty one who’s mean is bad. De Lornay, however, is as loyal to his lord as Beast is, without any thought of betrayal in his head. Stereotype happily broken.
The relationship was also handled wonderfully here, a nice contrast to the still-popular, “I’ve just met this guy but I’m totally in love with him and he loves me back” style that I’ve previously expressed distaste for. Ismae and Gavriel Duval dislike each other at first. This grows to a grudging tolerance, progresses to friendship, and then later on becomes something much deeper than that. The natural and realistic progression of emotions was refreshing to see here, and it made me far more interested in the two characters than I would have been had the other approach been taken.
LaFevers deftly dealth with complex politics in a way that could easily be understood by those who don’t make politics their forte. From a pre-teen duchess trying to hold her duchy intact, to a foul old nobleman who wants to marry said duchess in order to take control of her lands, to a man orchestrating the downfall of the duchy who you still can’t help but sympathize with, the realism of the people and the situations they’re in add wonderful tension to the story, and there are very few things so out of place as to throw you out of the groove you’ll undoubtedly get into while reading Grave Mercy.
Between complex dark themes, a well-done romance, and an interesting twist on conventional religious beliefs, Grave Mercy is a must-have for fans of historical fiction who enjoy a strong realistic female protagonist both by modern standards and by the contextual standards of the story she features in. I’m definitely looking forward to the second book in the series, since I don’t doubt that it’s going to be just as captivating as the first.
(Book provided for review by the publisher via NetGalley.)