by Robin LaFevers
Plot: Ismae Rienne still bears the scars of the poison her mother took in an attempt to abort her. Her survival from that, and the scars from the incident, prove that she was sired by the god of Death. At seventeen, when her abusive father sells her to an equally abusive husband, she is spirited away by secret followers of the old gods to the convent of St. Mortain, the god of Death. The convent takes her in, gives her a home, and trains her in all the skills necessary to serve St. Mortain, from poison and weapons training, to history and “feminine artistry.”
The convent is loyal to Brittany, and to its young Duchess Anne, who is fighting to retain Brittany’s independence from France. When word reaches the convent that there may be a traitor in Anne’s court, Ismae is sent on a mission to Anne’s court, disguised as the mistress to the nobleman Gavriel Duval. Her instructions are to search for information on the traitor, assassinate anyone marqued for death by St. Mortain (or that she is ordered to assassinate by the convent), and to watch Duval, who may be the traitor. But when her instructions come into conflict with her heart. Ismae must make some difficult decisions.
- *Ismae Rienne. *Ismae is the kind of character I love. Equally adept with poisons and the crossbow, this girl can kick some serious butt. She’s not so adept at playing Duval’s mistress, however, having skipped many of the lessons in the feminine arts for more time in the poison room. Ismae is a well-rounded and fully developed character who has to make some difficult decisions as the book progresses. The convent took her in and essentially saved her life, and she is sworn to serve them, but her instincts increasingly come into conflict with her instructions from the convent, and she has to choose between honoring her commitment to the convent, and doing what she thinks is right.
- *Sybella. *Sybella is a novitiate who starts at the convent at the same time as Ismae. Sybella seems quite mad when she is brought to the convent, but Ismae befriends her and she eventually becomes one of the convent’s strongest novitiates. We don’t learn much about Sybella; there’s hints of a tragic past, and she plays a key role in a few places later in the book, but she’s an intriguing character. I was happy to learn that the second book in this series, Dark Triumph, tells Sybella’s story, and I’m looking forward to reading it.
- Annith. Annith is another novitiate who was already at the convent when Ismae joins. Annith and Ismae become good friends, but there are hints that there are some weaknesses in Annith’s character. Perhaps we’ll learn more about Annith in the third book.
- *Gavriel Duval. *Gavriel is a nobleman, although a bastard, and appears to be fiercely loyal to Duchess Anne. Initially he dislikes Ismae as much as she dislikes him, but it probably will not surprise anyone that eventually the sparks fly between these two.
- *Anne, Duchess of Brittany. *Although very young at the time of this story, (13, I think?) Anne is already a determined young ruler playing the political game and dealing with issues that would intimidate even older and more experienced leaders, including the fact that her father promised her in marriage to half a dozen different European nobles and that, as a woman, she had no right to rule. Anne is a historical figure, and her life makes interesting reading (see the link above to the historical note on the author’s website for starters).
Worldbuilding: Because Grave Mercy is set in a historical time and place, in many ways the worldbuilding is more about creating a sense of place and bringing to life 15th Century Brittany. This LaFevers does excellently.
Things I liked:
- See my discussion of Ismae’s character above.
- Lots of court intrigue! In fact, as complex as the intrigue is and as numerous the betrayals, LaFevers says in her historical note, “Suffice it to say there were about twice as many schemes going on in real life as I used in the book, including additional suitors, competing claims for the throne, and additional double crossing.”
- The romance is credible and manages to be both sweet and hot.
- For a book about assassins serving the god of Death, surprisingly Grace Mercy doesn’t glorify death. Ismae discovers that sometimes death can be a mercy, and that redemption is possible.
- I can’t think of any issues I had with this book, except perhaps that a few threads were left hanging, presumably for the sequels.
Who would like this book:
- In many ways, Grave Mercy is historical fiction, and would appeal to readers who enjoy historical fiction. However, the court intrigue gives it a fantasy feel, and with the addition of fantasy elements (primarily relating to the god of Death), it would also appeal to readers of traditional fantasy, especially those who like both strong female protagonists and a little romance.
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FTC required disclosure: Review copy sent by the publisher for Cybils Awards judging. The bookstore links above are affiliate links, and I earn a very small percentage of any sales made through the links. Neither of these things influenced my review.