Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Grave Mercy by R.L. LaFevers

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher from NetGalley.

I first heard of this book a couple of months ago. The idea behind it intrigued me from the get go. Those ninja nuns sound like the coolest nuns to ever walk the earth! When I got the mail about this being an open galley for two days, I immediately got a copy of it. It sounded like just my cup of tea!

Title: Grave Mercy
Series: His Fair Assassin #1
Author: R.L. LaFevers
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Pages: 560
PoV: 1st person
Tense: Present tense

Story: 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 and impressions: Grave Mercy is the story of Ismae, a daughter of saint Mortain, the old Breton god of Death. Rescued from what would have been certain death, she enters the convent of saint Mortain where she is trained in the arts of death, awaiting orders and assignments from her father Himself. Three years later, she finds herself being sent to court with the dubious Lord Duval where she is to act as the eyes and ears of the convent as they try to discover who is betraying the nation of Brittany to the French.

Before I get into this review, let me explain something about the history of language in France. It is only in the second half of the 19th century that the French language became widely spoken in France. Indeed, it wasn’t until the Revolution in 1789 that they started to consider the concept of “one language for one people”. In the 15th century, only people who interacted with the French court and politics spoke the king’s French. Everyone else spoke regional languages / dialects that were not always mutually understandable. I would imagine that the Breton court would have spoken French in order to interact with their French neighbours (as Brittany was not under French rule at this time). The daughter of a lowly turnip farmer, however, would not. As they are in Brittany, I would assume she’d have spoken some form of Breton, which is a Celtic language. Upon entering the convent, Ismae would not only have had to learn to read and write but she would also have had to learn French.

The book itself balances precariously on that precipice that is the boundary between YA and adult books. At times I felt like I was reading something aimed at adults and others it was definitely aimed at YA readers. Despite this, it does work well for both markets and I suspect the book will appeal to many 16+ readers (well, maybe 15+).  It is certainly geared towards female readers, though, and the romance aspect is fairly heavy. I personally really enjoyed the slow unfurling of attraction between Duval and Ismae. It’s just the sort of romance that I really like: no instant love at first sight but rather a slow-building emotional connection as the characters get to know one another.

There’s also the fantasy of one of the old gods (now just called a saint by the Church) interacting with the living in order to sire progeny and then granting these children certain abilities so that they may enact his will upon the living. I particularly liked the idea of the shadow of death guiding Ismae’s hand: showing her who to kill, when and even how.

And then there’s the political threat. Anne is only 12-years-old but she is to be crowned Duchess of Brittany (if the French will stop opposing her) and she is also having to juggle several suitors from when her father had promised her hand to a number of men for political reasons. Now it would seem that on top of all of this, one of her five most trusted advisors is betraying her to the French, who are trying to annex Brittany. But which one? They could all be playing their own political games – some are even doing so openly – and as Ismae soon discovers, there are layer upon layer of plots threatening Anne from all directions.

Anne herself is a real historical figure. I always consider it to be a difficult task to portray someone who one day long ago really lived, breathed and felt emotions just as we do today. I felt that the author really stepped up to the task and did an incredibly good job with Anne: she is both the adult leader of a nation and the young and vulnerable child who is at a loss in this world she’s been thrown into. On more than one occasion my heart was breaking for this poor child who was forced to grow up so fast.

As for Ismae, she also had a lot of growing up to do despite her older age. She was only 14 when she entered the convent and although she is knowledgeable about certain things, she is also na├»ve about others. She was taught to regard the convent’s instructions as being infallible. When she meets Duval all of this is turned on its head and she finds herself forced to regard her teachings with a new eye. I really enjoyed observing her evolve beyond what she’d been moulded into as she realises that Mortain does not systematically take out the bad guys as he leads the good guys to victory. No, He is much more complicated than that. Ismae was a wonderful character who found her own two feet in a world where others would rather keep her under their thumb.

In the convent, Ismae has two close friends: Sybella and Annith. Both play a fairly small role in Ismae’s story. The synopsis of the second book shows that it is to be Sybella’s story, which leads me to believe that the third book will be about Annith. I’m looking forward to Sybella’s story in particular as she’s already such a wonderfully complex character in this book.

The only thing that I didn’t like about the book was the style it’s written in and unfortunately that’s a pretty big thing to not like about a book. This is all personal taste, of course, but the style was far too simple for my taste and tended to tell rather than show. It was such an amazing story but I felt that it was really let down by the style. It could be that the author is still finding her footing in the murky waters of narration. This most definitely will not keep me from reading other books in this series, but it just wasn’t the style for me.

Style: See above.

Final verdict: I love, love, loved the story. The only thing keeping me from rating it 5 stars and slapping it on my favourites shelf is the style. 4 stars

Extra notes: Some swearing (in French). Possible sex scene but it was so expertly handled that I’m not even sure whether sex took place (though I think it did).


  1. This sounds interesting. A young adult historical fiction book. Plus, a strong heroine. Thanks for this review. Will check this out! :D

  2. Great review! Thank goodness that there's no instalove, haha. Too many books have that now. Definitely need to get this one!

  3. I disagree with the "telling rather than showing" comment. I thought she did an excellent job of showing what life was like in the Middle Ages. I didn't feel like I was being told anything. As you said, though, style is a very subjective thing. However, I agree with the rest of your review, and whether I agree with the telling thing or not, you did a great job reviewing this book! :D


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