I liked, but didn’t love Robin LaFevers’ debut novel, Grave Mercy.
This is similar to how I liked, but never loved Lyla Garrity, and often found certain aspects of her personality annoying—hence the FNL Character rating below.
First of all, this book is erroneously being marketed as Young Adult.
The main character and narrator, Ismae Rienne, is a young adult. That’s the only element of this book that strikes me as YA. (Sandra, a retired English teacher and therefore someone who knows what she’s talking about when it comes to literary genres, thoroughly agrees that this book does not have the attitude of a YA book.) A large part of that is due to the Ismae’s voice, which never quite struck me convincingly as that of a seventeen year old girl. This book should be categorized as historical fiction/romance with a touch of the supernatural.
Just keep that in mind if you decide to read this novel (which is the first in a planned series).
The premise of Grave Mercy is Assassin Nuns + Medieval Court Intrigue, which sounds like it would = Badass Fun. However, Grave Mercy ends up going light on the badass, middling on the intrigue, and heavy on the non-smutty romance.
If that doesn’t sound interesting to you, don’t read this book.
Now, my favorite part of Grave Mercy is the setting.
Based on my stellar Wikipedia research, I have determined that the events of the book take place during the late Medieval period, specifically between the years 1482-1486. I have always found the Medieval period fascinating. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe fractured and went through a period of regression, chock-full of black death, power vacuums, and the resulting wars/political plots. Grave Mercy, in particular, takes place in Brittany, a region of northwest France that at the time was struggling to maintain its independence from France at large. LaFevers peppers the book with accurate (gasp!) historical references and weaves historical figures in as characters.
At the beginning of the novel, Ismae is 13 and has been sold by her brutal father into a forced marriage to an equally brutal man. With help, she is taken to a convent of Saint Mortain, the patron saint of death. Surrounded by women and the promise of learning deadly arts that can be used against men who have only ever brutalized her, Ismae enthusiastically takes to her training as an assassin. Ismae has a particular knack for poisons, but is also schooled in hand-to-hand combat, weapons, and the “womanly arts” that allow the assassins to get close to their male targets.
As the final part of her training as a novitiate, Ismae’s assignment requires her travel to court and pose as the mistress of Gavriel Duval, advisor and fierce protector of Anne, Duchess of Brittany. Determined to find a way to maintain Brittany’s independence while not forcing Anne into a marriage with the abhorrent Duke d’Albret, Duval is none too pleased being saddled with a novitiate assassin. On the other hand, Ismae finds herself neck-deep in court intrigue, unable to know if she can trust anyone, even Gavriel. Beyond that, she must hide her identity as an assassin while learning who is—and is not—loyal to the Duchy of Brittany.
Thrown into such an environment, Ismae stumbles a few times, but holds her own. She figures out how to place herself in situations where she can gather information, while also having the opportunity to flex her combat skills now and then. I like that Ismae is portrayed as a strong female character with intelligence and skill, especially considering that the book takes place during a time when the choices for women were mainly limited to tavern wench, whore, or peasant’s wife.
So while you couldn’t pay me to go back in time and live in the Medieval Era (hey, they’re called the Dark Ages for a reason), I usually love me some juicy court intrigue reading material. Double-crosses! Bribery! Coded messages! Females using their smutty wiles as spies! Red herrings! Loyalties betrayed! You never know.
Except in the case of Grave Mercy, I figured it all out fairly early on. No red herring for me.
In fairness, that’s not to say that other people won’t be shocked and surprised. To be more fair, I do have a tendency to complain that authors use the red herring gimmick too much. Therefore, I was still drawn into figuring out if some other character was the traitorous party, especially since I couldn’t figure out the actual guilty party’s motive.
Also to its credit, the book does have its moments of sword unsheathing, dagger throwing fun, but the scenes are too short and too infrequent. Much of the novel focuses on the relationship between Duval and Ismae, and whether a romantic relationship is even possible due to Ismae’s obligations to her convent. If you like a slowly developing romance in which the characters never actually have a conversation in which they attempt to get to know each other beyond their work environment, then Grave Mercy is for you.
So, while I enjoyed the setting and generally found the plot compelling, I didn’t particularly connect with the characters or find the prose in any way beautiful or memorable.
I enjoyed Grave Mercy for the few hours it took to read it, and that’s about it.
Verdict: Meh, verging on Recommended—I enjoyed it while it lasted, but it’s a take it or leave it for me.
FNL Character Rating: Lyla Garrity (with a touch of Tyra’s badass)
Publication Date: April 3, 1012 (Though it is on many shelves now.)
CEFS received a copy of this book from the publisher via Net Galley. No compensation or other “goodies” were received in exchange for this honest review.