When I first learned about Grave Mercy a few years back I was immediately intrigued by the concept of a convent of nun assassins, who were considered handmaidens of Death. I tagged the book as something to pick up when I had the time, but it just never happened. When the opportunity to review the novel came up a few weeks ago I jumped at the chance; I would finally see if the idea of deadly sisters enthralled me as much as I anticipated…
Ismae Rienne should have never been born, but when an herbal abortifacient fails to work, the young woman is born scarred. The people of her small village consider her marked as one of Death’s daughters, and she is abused by her mother’s husband and shunned by all else. On her wedding night Ismae’s boorish groom panics at her disfigurement, allowing followers of the old gods to spirit her away to the convent of Saint Mortain on the Ile de Sein and open her up to a world where Ismae can gain control of her own destiny. Immune to poisons and illness and trained as a perfect weapon the young woman ends up in the court of Brittany. Ismae’s orders are to help protect Anne, the young duchess, ascend to the throne of Brittany while dispatching any traitors in the court’s midst, but treachery and betrayals run rampant, and it’s not always easy to tell which courtier is a liar. At the same time the young assassin finds herself drawn to her protector at court, Anne’s older half-brother, Gavriel Duval, but is he as innocent as he seems, or is he also playing the game of politics?
Robin LaFevers’ universe in Grave Mercy appealed to me on a multitude of levels. First, the historical detail provided for the time period (15th century France) reflected the research and work the author put in before crafting her story. Despite being an alternate universe piece LaFevers took time to make the historical bits blended into her tale as accurate as possible, which I greatly appreciated. The details helped immerse me into Ismae’s world and paint a picture in my mind. Second, even though the setting is a time where women were treated as men’s property Ismae was given agency through her affiliation with the convent of Saint Mortain. The story even emphasized the difference between the main character’s life in her small village and the freedom of the convent. Throughout the novel LaFevers presented women who found a way to control their own lives even if they had to manipulate their men to do so. The book never allowed the time period to justify mistreatment of women; it presented the way things were and often set the women themselves to find a way to flourish within the mores of the time. Third, what wasn’t there to love about nun assassins? Admittedly, the nuns of Saint Mortain aren’t exactly the type of sisters many of us would picture given their propensity to use seduction and womanly wiles to gain access to a target. At the same time the adherence to old gods over new and the fragile movement toward modern Christianity rang very true to me. The convent used the trappings of Catholicism to protect their allegiance to the old god of Death, which wouldn’t have been uncommon for the time period, while protecting discarded women and giving them freedom from men’s control, a time old tradition. Lastly, the characters themselves made me dive into Grave Mercy every chance I got because their vibrancy and depth intrigued me. Ismae and Duval were far from perfect, but their humanity made me root for them against the odds. Ismae’s affection for her fellow initiates, Sybella and Annith, also charmed me, and each member of Anne’s court was presented as an individual, not just a caricature.
My only complaint with Grave Mercy is that it’s written in first person present tense, which can be a little hard to relax into. It took me a few chapters to fully get into the story due to adjusting to the writing, but I felt rewarded when the plot finally sucked me in fully.
Overall, anyone who loves darker stories with a touch of romance and intrigue should check out Robin LaFevers’ Grave Mercy. The history angle blended with a dynamic plot will keep you riveted to the last page. As an added bonus the ending doesn’t try to tie everything up neatly because that just wouldn’t fit the characters; Duval’s final gesture towards Ismae shows that he has taken the time to understand her emotional needs and truly puts them above his own.
I just hope that the remaining two books in the series are just as good, and I hope to read them soon.
4.5 Uses of Arduinna’s Snare out of 5