September 2, 2012

Review: Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers
Published: 2012,
Series: His Fair Assassin, #1
Genre: Young Adult Historical Fantasy
Source: Library book

Why must the honorable die when so many dishonorable live?

Oh historical fantasy, how I have missed you. Although I am a huge fan of historical fiction, I haven't read any for a while. Historical fantasy is such an inventive genre, and I love how it combines two of my favorite genres. There's just something so exhilarating reading a book that intermixes the historical with the fantastical. After reading the synopsis of Robin LaFevers' Grave Mercy, I knew that this was something I had to read, and I am glad I did.

Grave Mercy takes place in the Duchy of Brittany, a small independent northern region of France, during the late fifteenth century. Ismae Rienne has not had a great childhood she is the product of a failed abortion after her parents found her mother to be pregnant with the god of death's child. Already conscious about how little value her parents placed upon her life, Ismae also bears scars from the poisons that failed to kill her and is physically abused by her father. Her life does not seem like it will get any better through an arranged marriage, but hours after the wedding she is whisked away to a secret convent where nuns act as the handmaidens of Saint Mortain, the god of death. There Ismae finds a greater purpose in her life, learning how to serve Mortain through poison lore, seduction, weaponry, and how to administer the god's justice to (mainly male) victims. 

Ismae is eager to try her training out in the world, and her first and second assignments more or less go to plan. For her third assignment, however, Ismae finds herself far out of her league. She is asked to attend court as the mistress of Duval, a noble with a strong distrust for Ismae and her convent in general. At court she must uphold her duties of Mortain and protect both the duchess and independence of Brittany. 

Historical fantasies have the potential to be wonderful stories on so many levels, and Grave Mercy definitely upheld my expectations for the genre. LaFevers put in the research necessary to situate this novel within a very real place and era. It was a very visual book, and I loved all the descriptions of clothing, rooms, and the general atmosphere. I felt like I could imagine the culture at least a little, which is not easy to do. From my brief Wikipedia forays, I was able to confirm some historical aspects about Brittany that were present within the novel, as well as some information about its rulers (more on that later). I've always found it simply amazing when authors are able to bring to life certain events and settings and then infuse them with their own stories and characters. From this perspective, the book was very well done.

For the most part I liked Ismae's character. Ismae endured a very difficult life before the convent took her in, but once there Ismae doesn't seem to have quite the amount of struggles with self-worth and doubt that I would have expected. Part of the reason behind that may be that the novel skips ahead three years after Ismae's been in the convent for only a short time, but even past that I felt that there are aspects Ismae's character is lacking. But there are many, many aspects of Ismae that are just a delight to read: she's fierce, determined, and the daughter of death himself. And she does undergo a transformation and is able to question previously assumed knowledge. I always love a rational heroine willing to question the way things are.

The romance between Ismae and Duval, while expected, was also quite satisfying to read. For as much as I hate insta-love romances, I absolutely adore slow-burn ones where the characters start with enmity and misunderstanding. And, although Ismae and Duval have a common goal in seeing Anne crowned as the Duchess of Brittany, their relationship definitely fits this bill. Their relationship changes from one of misunderstanding and disgust (albeit one of mutual goals), to one where they really start to see the other person as a legitimate person, one with passions, personality, and, yes, flaws. Although I will say that this one pivotal scene that really establishes them in a relationship made me roll my eyes quite a bit. But they still form a very enjoyable relationship that I was willing to cheer for.

My main issue, however, is related to the romance I quite enjoyed reading. As a friend of mine recently explained, the novel is kind of divided. There's the beginning part where Ismae is at the convent and completes her first two missions, and that section is all about female empowerment. And then Ismae is taken to court to protect the Duchess of Brittany's claim to the throne, under the guise of being Duval's mistress. In this second half of the novel, female empowerment takes a back seat to many other aspects of the book. The political intrigue, for instance. And also the romance, which is a little unfortunate. Ismae has so much power in the eyes of her convent and her god, yet at some instances she inexplicably becomes much meeker and even second-guesses herself. I realize that she has been introduced into a world with which she's unfamiliar. But I still would have liked to see a little more awesome female empowerment in the second half than there actually is.

I usually don't really focus on secondary characters outside of love interest in my reviews, but I have to take a minute to appreciate a few of the wonderful secondary characters. Anne is probably my favorite character from this book. Anne of Brittany was also an actual historical person whose hand was indeed sought by many suitors. How awesome is that? I also enjoyed learning a little about Ismae's fellow acolytes Annith and Sybella. Based on the promotional blurb for Dark Triumph, it sounds as though Sybella is the protagonist. If that's so, then I'd love for Annith to be the protagonist of the final book. I'm curious to learn what mysterious mission Sybella had for the entirety of this book, and I'd love the chance to see what her inner mind is like. Annith was not in much of Grave Mercy, but I really liked what I've seen of her so far and since she was so incredibly sidelined in this book, it would be nice for her to have her own experiences. Although I enjoyed reading about Ismae, I am excited by the possibility of the following novels allowing us to further expand the world of Brittany and learn more about other characters.
There were a few issues I had here and there with Grave Mercy, but overall it was a very enjoyable read. I don't think it's possible for me to resist a well-constructed historical fantasy full of political intrigue and a slow-burning romance.
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Amanda loves few things better than sitting down with a cup of tea and a book. She frequently stays up far too late, telling herself she just needs to finish one more page. When she's not wrapped up in the stories of others, Amanda works as a children's librarian in a public library.


  1. Grave Mercy has been on my TBR list for awhile. I just can't decide if I will like the book, although it does seem really interesting. Great review.

    1. Well, I'd say to give it a shot if you like historical fiction or are in that sort of mood one day. It's not a bad book by any means and definitely enjoyable. Thanks for commenting and I'll be curious to read a future review of it if you do decide to read it at some point!

  2. Every time I read a review of yours, I feel as though I should be reading that book instead of just the review.

    1. Aww thank you, Sam! :) Don't worry I am working on that list of recommended books for you. It's detailed and so taking a while. But I'm picking out all the best ones.


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