Grave Mercy caught my eye for a number of reasons. A YA historical romance set in the Middle Ages, something I have rarely seen. A secluded convent of assassin nuns. Political intrigue. An absolutely fantastic tag line: “Why be the sheep when you can be the wolf?”
Not to mention a serious-looking girl on the cover holding a CROSSBOW. (See image to the right.)
All of that conspired to get me to pick up the book. But what drew me in and kept me reading was the lovely, lovely writing. This was one of the rare present-tense books that sucked me in almost immediately and didn’t let me go. I absolutely adored it from start to finish.
Fourteen-year-old Ismae is rescued from an abusive marriage and delivered to the convent of St. Mortain, the god of death. There, she is given the option to become a handmaiden of Death, trained as an assassin to carry out Mortain’s work. Ismae jumps at the chance.
After three years of training and apprenticeship to the convent’s healer/poison mistress, Ismae is sent out for her first kill. But these missions bring her into conflict with the mysterious Gavriel Duval, who claims he is trying to ferret out a traitor to the new duchess.
As the convent is also looking for the traitor, Ismae is assigned to be Duval’s mistress in order to gain access to the royal court. Neither of them are happy with the agreement, but Ismae has an additional, secret order: to ascertain whether Duval himself is loyal.
However, all her training can’t prepare her for the numerous political machinations she will face or the new feelings Duval raises in her. And with time running out to secure the duchess’s throne, Ismae will have to rely on more than just her skills to protect her country.
There’s so much I enjoyed about this book that it’s difficult to know where to begin. Ismae has not had an easy life: her mother tried to abort her with a herbwitch’s poison, and as such she has a jagged scar that runs the length of her back. Her father beat her regularly, and then sold her into the marriage she escapes at the beginning of the book.
Her entire life has been out of her control, so when Ismae gets the chance to make a choice for her own future, she leaps at it. I loved watching her grow, as she became more confident in herself and her abilities as Mortain’s handmaiden. She’s extremely devout, but her faith grows and changes throughout the book as well as she prays, questions, and comes to understand more about what Mortain wants from her.
And throughout most of the book, Ismae is the one doing the rescuing, which was so very many kinds of awesome, to say the least.
The romance between her and Duval builds very slowly and very sweetly, and very believably, particularly considering we never go into his viewpoint. They constantly clash throughout the book, as they have similar goals but different ways of going about them. I loved the way they gradually came to admire and respect each other, which provided a lot of delicious angst on Ismae’s part as she tries to keep her head and heart separate and follow her duties to Mortain.
The historical setting combined with the slight twist of fantasy creates a fascinating world for the story. LaFevers weaves them together beautifully, drawing you in to the cloistered life of the convent and the more unstable, treacherous world of the royal court. Her writing style is perfect for this; the narration felt genuine and not once did I come across something that sounded anachronistic or that made me stumble.
At times, Grave Mercy reminded me of a (much) less adult version of Kushiel’s Dart, what with the various political threads, the first person POV, and a main character who acts as a spy in addition to something else. (This is a sign of praise, by the way; I adored Kushiel’s Dart and own the next two books in that series.)
I had minor quibbles with the book—I guessed the traitor very early on, and I think the reveal took a little longer than it should have—but by and large the rest of it was so well done that it didn’t bother me.
If political plots, assassin nuns, the series title “His Fair Assassin,” and romance sound like your cup of tea, then pick up Grave Mercy the first chance you get. It’s such a wonderful, well-written story, and well worth your time.